Mae West’s Pumpkin Pie

This variation on pumpkin pie comes from actress and writer Mae West. It appears in a 1933 community cookbook published by the Assistance League of Southern California, alongside contributions from several other Hollywood stars such as Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Constance Bennet, Marion Davies, and Cary Grant.

Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong,” 1933. Photo credit: New York Times.

Unfortunately, Mae West doesn’t give us much information beyond the actual recipe. The pie is titled “Pumpkin Pie Robert,” but it’s unclear what the name “Robert” refers to – it could be the name of a person who gave her the recipe, or perhaps even the name of a place the recipe came from.

Mae West includes brandy in her recipe, which is pushing the boundaries just a little, since the cookbook was published in 1933 and Prohibition wasn’t repealed until the end of that year. She is far from the only contributor to this cookbook to do so, however, and finding alcohol in recipes from the Prohibition years isn’t at all uncommon.

The strangest ingredient in this recipe to me is the Nippy cheese called for in the topping. I wasn’t able to find out exactly what Nippy cheese is, although it looks like it was some type of cheese spread originally made by Kraft. It was apparently not the same as cream cheese, since Kraft made that too, but for lack of a better substitute I decided to go with cream cheese. Any kind of flavored cheese spread honestly sounds like it would be disgusting when combined with whipped cream, so I’m hoping that the original Nippy cheese was something neutrally-flavored.

Pumpkin Pie Robert:

  • 1 1/2 cups pumpkin
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp salt (reduced from original)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 oz/4 tbsp brandy
  • 2 oz cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  1. Beat the eggs until light, then add the sugar, spices, and salt and beat until mixed.
  2. Scald the milk, then slowly add milk to the egg mixture while whisking constantly.
  3. Stir in the pumpkin and brandy.
  4. Line a pie pan with pastry (no recipe for pie crust is given in the book, so use your favorite recipe or store-bought).
  5. Pour in the filling. With a 9-inch pie pan, I ended up with some extra filling; the recipe is probably intended for a larger or deeper pan.
  6. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn down the oven to 325 degrees and bake for another 30-40 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  7. Topping: whip the cream until stiff. Mash the cream cheese with a fork, then stir into the cream. Once the pie is cold, use a piping bag to decorate it with the cream cheese mixture.

Tasting notes:

Like many pies, this one is definitely at its best the day after its made. When I tried it on day 1, the flavors were much too strong, with the brandy in particular overwhelming everything else. The flavors melded much better the second day, although it was still a strongly-flavored pie. I did end up reducing the salt, since 1 teaspoon seemed much too salty to me.

I liked the cream-cheese topping, but I think I am more of a whipped cream purist. I also wonder whether cream cheese was a good substitute for Nippy cheese, or if the original cheese was something more savory. There are people who put cheddar cheese on apple pies, although I’ve never heard of it used on a pumpkin pie. Was Mae West a cheese-on-dessert-pie person? (I am very firmly not a cheese-on-dessert-pie person – but cream cheese is ok).

Overall, my verdict is that this was a decent pumpkin pie, but it just wasn’t quite to my taste. Sorry, Mae West, but Amelia Simmons’ Pumpkin Pie is still the top historic pumpkin pie for me!

References:

The Assistance League of Southern California. (1933). The palatists book of cookery. Hollywood, California: Citizen-News Company. https://whatamericaate.org/full.record.php?kid=164-590-2788&page=1

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