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Everytime I make a pie, I get a different result as far as the stiffness of the pie. I am trying to perfect coconut cream pie (and other cream pies).

I have been researching Shirley O, Corriher and Harold McGee's work, and understand that the alpha-amylase in the egg yolk must be deactivated by boiling for a short time (although I also saw things like "approach a boil" to keep from breaking starch bonds). Otherwise it digest the starch as in the cornstarch, flour or tapioca starch. I understand that once the granules burst and release the starch chains and bond, that the process will start to reverse after the cream reaches its thickest point. So, I am careful not to stir too much, etc. I researched the different starches and found that cornstarch is not very heat resistant, so I looked into flour and tapioca (cassava) flour or starch. I don't think I have looked at arrow root as much.

OK, what about the sugar? Will too much sugar make it runny (I did try a recipe with less sugar). What about the milk? I use whole milk. Is there something with the milk? Do I need to use cream instead? I have read about using gelatin, but am not sure I want that consistency. Surely there is a secret so that the pie will come out right every time. HELP!

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Forget the gelatin, it dissolves at 50°C (and starches start to thicken at 70°C, but often need higher temperatures). You cannot use it in a baked filling. If you found a recipe calling for it, it probably specified a prebaked crust or layers with a cake ring around them, and the filling is supposed to set outside of the oven, like a poppyseed-cream cake. –  rumtscho Mar 15 '11 at 21:02
    
That's assuming you are baking the filling. See my answer below. –  ElendilTheTall Mar 15 '11 at 21:12
    
I removed the [baking] tag that I added because I think it was causing confusion. Although I'd consider any pie to be baking, the question does not specify anywhere that the filling itself is being baked. –  Aaronut Mar 15 '11 at 21:25
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3 Answers

Most cream pie recipes that I have used call for corn starch. Flour is sometimes used but it seems to be in older recipes and the texture turns out a bit different than you would expect in a cream pie.

The yolk enzyme does have to be deactivated but this is not a big deal. After you add the starch, according to the recipe, bring the mixture to a simmer for a few minutes. The corn starch can take it and won't break just from that. I have had pies not turn out from not cooking them long enough- I've never had one cooked too long.

Using whole milk does make a difference. A little bit of milk fat adds a lot to the texture and consistency of the custard. You can successfully make the pie with lower fat milk but it will be creamier and thicker with more fat (as you would expect).

As for tapioca starch... One Thanksgiving I ran out of corn starch. I looked through my cupboard and all I had was tapioca starch that I had used for an oriental recipe. I substituted one to one.

Tapioca starch sets nothing like cornstarch. Where corn starch sets up like a creamy pudding, tapioca starch has an amusing rubbery quality to it. When I sliced the pie the knife would go almost to the bottom of the pan before the custard would slice and spring back up. I could hold up a slice of pie by the back crust and the entire slice would stretch about two feet and dangle in the air.

The pie was delicious but I didn't think it should be served to guests. :) I don't recommend using tapioca starch unless you are going for silly.

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My coconut cream pie recipe uses milk (2 cups, whole milk gives a creamier flavour), 6 eggs, 1 cup sugar, and 2 tablespoons of gelatin (and coconut of course). It doesn't go like jelly, it has more of a silky consistency.

You divide the milk thusly:

  • 2/3 cup, sprinkled with the gelatin, whisked, and left to soften for 5 mins
  • 1 1/3 cup to make the 'custard'

Once the custard is made (i.e. sugar whisked into egg yolks, hot milk poured in after tempering), simply whisk in the gelatinised milk. My recipe then calls for cream and the egg whites to be folded in (after cooling) to lighten the whole thing.

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This sounds as though it is not baked; I guess you'd have to pre-bake the crust and then... pipe the custard in? I guess you could just pour it in if you've got a high crust; I've always tended to think of cream pies as bursting with cream. –  Aaronut Mar 15 '11 at 21:15
    
Yes, it's a blind-baked shell. I usually just pile the filling in and smooth it off, then top with coconut. You could pretty much do what you like with it though. –  ElendilTheTall Mar 15 '11 at 21:17
    
Ah, got it. Yeah, I just looked at a few recipes and that seems to be typical. For some reason I was thinking of a filling more akin to that of a cream puff, where the crust is a bit player. This is more like any other kind of pie. –  Aaronut Mar 15 '11 at 21:20
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Corn starch always works. It stiffens the pie

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It doesn't always work, as the OP already mentioned. –  rumtscho Dec 28 '13 at 7:27
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