Easy as (cream) pie: With a few kitchen staples, even a novice baker can create a celebratory dessert

Deep Dark Mocha Cream Pie is topped with Espresso Whipped Cream and has coffee in the pie filling. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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Deep Dark Mocha Cream Pie is topped with Espresso Whipped Cream and has coffee in the pie filling. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

As pandemic fears and political turmoil continue to grip the country, it’s easy to forget there’s a major holiday coming up this weekend. With some pools closed, many community fireworks displays canceled, and beach vacations on hold, it’s up to us to figure out how we’re going to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Whatever your plans, here’s one easy way to make the day, or any other day for that matter, feel festive: make a pie. Something luxurious-tasting and out of the ordinary that won’t break the budget. No specialized tools or exemplary baking skills required. Just enough creativity involved to produce a sense of accomplishment, without a big mess to clean up afterward.

I wondered what Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin might come up with if I threw down this challenge. The married Atlanta doctors have racked up more than 500 trophies and ribbons on the amateur baking competition circuit for their eye-popping, tradition-defying creations, including one for Best of Show in the 2017 National Pie Championships. Their first cookbook, "The New Pie: Modern Techniques for the Classic American Dessert" (Clarkson Potter, $30), was a finalist in this year's International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Awards competition.

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Paul Arguin (left) and Chris Taylor are married Atlanta doctors who have a knack for making pies. Besides earning more than 500 trophies and ribbons on the amateur baking competition circuit, they’re known for their cookbook “The New Pie: Modern Techniques for the Classic American Dessert” (Clarkson Potter, $30). CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Paul Arguin (left) and Chris Taylor are married Atlanta doctors who have a knack for making pies. Besides earning more than 500 trophies and ribbons on the amateur baking competition circuit, they’re known for their cookbook “The New Pie: Modern Techniques for the Classic American Dessert” (Clarkson Potter, $30). CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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Paul Arguin (left) and Chris Taylor are married Atlanta doctors who have a knack for making pies. Besides earning more than 500 trophies and ribbons on the amateur baking competition circuit, they’re known for their cookbook “The New Pie: Modern Techniques for the Classic American Dessert” (Clarkson Potter, $30). CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

I've been following their seductive Instagram feed (@floursugarbutter) ever since I made their Thai Iced Tea Pie topped with frozen Whipped Cream "Ice Cubes" when I reviewed their book last year, which may be one of the most impressive desserts to ever come out of my kitchen.

“We’re constantly on the lookout for new pie filling ideas, and most start with a master recipe of some kind,” says Taylor, an Alzheimer’s specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where Arguin also worked as an epidemiologist until his recent retirement. “We love the aromatic Thai tea with a float of sweetened condensed milk served over ice at our favorite Thai restaurants, and this creamy base was a perfect match for those flavors.”

With a few simple adjustments, Taylor and Arguin demonstrate how that same pudding-like filling can morph into unlimited variations that are just as decadent, but far less time-consuming.

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Basic ingredients used in these pie recipes include (foreground) cornstarch, butter, eggs, sweetened condensed milk, and whole milk. Additional ingredients (background) give each pie its distinctive identity. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Basic ingredients used in these pie recipes include (foreground) cornstarch, butter, eggs, sweetened condensed milk, and whole milk. Additional ingredients (background) give each pie its distinctive identity. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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Basic ingredients used in these pie recipes include (foreground) cornstarch, butter, eggs, sweetened condensed milk, and whole milk. Additional ingredients (background) give each pie its distinctive identity. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Sweetened condensed milk is the key ingredient. “At its core, it’s milk and sugar that’s cooked and thickened during the manufacturing process,” explains Taylor. “It’s very convenient to have on hand because it’s shelf-stable and the sugar is already dissolved. You get the dairy, the sweetness, and the mouthfeel all at once.”

The other essential ingredients — cornstarch, egg yolks, salt, and any of a variety of liquids — are probably already in your pantry or refrigerator. Swap the homemade pie dough for a crumb crust to simplify. Or skip the crust altogether. Taylor and Arguin use a martini glass, for instance, for a take on a Cosmopolitan infused with cranberry juice and vodka.

“Any type of glasses could be used for the base,” Arguin adds. “A tea-flavored cream like the Earl Grey Latte can be poured into teacups and served in saucers. And instead of whipped cream, these pies could be topped with meringue, a layer of toasted nuts, chocolate shavings or even nothing at all.”

And if you really want to tap into your inner artist, pull out the pastry bag and practice your piping technique using the detailed instructions in “The New Pie,” or by watching a YouTube video.

Who needs fireworks?

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Earl Grey Latte Pie is topped with Vanilla Whipped Cream and has a strong dose of Earl Grey tea in the pie filling. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Earl Grey Latte Pie is topped with Vanilla Whipped Cream and has a strong dose of Earl Grey tea in the pie filling. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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Earl Grey Latte Pie is topped with Vanilla Whipped Cream and has a strong dose of Earl Grey tea in the pie filling. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

RECIPES

Basic Cream Pie Master Recipe

This master pie recipe includes three parts: the crust or base; a filling made from a primary addition (a juice, sauce or other liquid), a basic cream pie filling (cornstarch, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, salt and butter), and a secondary addition (chopped chocolate, vanilla, a liqueur); and a topping.

Sweetened condensed milk provides the sweetness, dairy-richness, and silky mouthfeel in this simple, versatile stovetop custard that’s ready in minutes. Other liquids for the filling may be substituted than the ones suggested, but the other ingredients may need a little tinkering. “For very acidic liquids, we would recommend using a Key lime pie-type base or a lemon meringue pie filling base and baking it,” says Chris Taylor. More neutral liquids work best in this pudding-like filling.

THE CRUST OR BASE

THE PRIMARY ADDITION (see options)

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

3 large egg yolks

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

THE SECONDARY ADDITION (see options)

THE TOPPING (see options)

Prepare the 9-inch pie crust of your choice (recipes follow) or set out 6-8 martini glasses, cups or small bowls.

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk THE PRIMARY ADDITION and cornstarch together until completely dissolved. Whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, yolks and salt.

Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil while gently whisking constantly, taking care that it doesn’t scorch.

Once the liquid starts to boil and bubbles appear all over the surface, set a timer for 1 full minute and whisk vigorously to prevent clumps.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the butter and THE SECONDARY ADDITION. Once all of the ingredients have melted and the mixture is smooth and uniform, use a rubber spatula to strain the filling through a fine mesh sieve to remove any stray bits of cooked egg or keep it simple and pour the filling into THE CRUST or OTHER BASE and smooth the top.

Press plastic wrap directly onto the top of the mixture and refrigerate until cold and firm throughout, at least 2 hours.

Put THE TOPPING on the pie before serving.

Makes 1 (9-inch) pie, 6-8 servings.

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Cosmopolitan Cream Pies, Served Up don’t need a crust because they’re served in martini glasses. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Cosmopolitan Cream Pies, Served Up don’t need a crust because they’re served in martini glasses. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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Cosmopolitan Cream Pies, Served Up don’t need a crust because they’re served in martini glasses. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

CREAM PIE VARIATIONS

Cosmopolitan Cream Pies, Served Up

For a more grown-up tasting dessert, a well-stocked liquor cabinet is a good place to look for inspiration. You can serve it in a pie crust if you like, or just pour it directly into a cocktail glass, top with whipped cream, and perhaps garnish with a cookie if you crave some crunch.

THE BASE: 6-8 (4-ounce) martini glasses

BASIC CREAM PIE FILLING (see Basic Cream Pie recipe)

THE PRIMARY ADDITION: 1 cup 100% cranberry juice plus 1/4 cup orange juice

THE SECONDARY ADDITION: 2 tablespoons vodka

THE TOPPING: Grand Marnier Whipped Cream (see Basic Whipped Cream and variations)

Set out the martini glasses and ingredients for the Basic Cream Pie Filling, the cranberry juice, the orange juice, and the vodka.

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk the juices and cornstarch together until completely dissolved, then follow the Basic Cream Pie master recipe as directed. After removing the saucepan from the heat and whisking in the butter, add the vodka. Divide the custard among the martini glasses and refrigerate until cold and firm throughout, at least 2 hours. Make the Grand Marnier Whipped Cream (see recipe) and top each custard before serving.

Serves 6-8.

Per serving, based on 8: 357 calories (percent of calories from fat, 50), 6 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 20 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 127 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium.

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To make the Chocolate Cookie Crust for Deep Dark Mocha Cream Pie, you use chocolate sandwich cookies, such as Oreos. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

To make the Chocolate Cookie Crust for Deep Dark Mocha Cream Pie, you use chocolate sandwich cookies, such as Oreos. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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To make the Chocolate Cookie Crust for Deep Dark Mocha Cream Pie, you use chocolate sandwich cookies, such as Oreos. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Deep Dark Mocha Cream Pie

Here’s a pie for chocolate lovers with a serious caffeine jolt.

THE BASE: Chocolate Cookie Crust, baked and cooled (see recipe for Basic Crumb Crust with variations)

BASIC CREAM PIE FILLING (see Basic Cream Pie recipe)

THE PRIMARY ADDITION: 1 1/3 cups very strong coffee

THE SECONDARY ADDITION: 4 ounces bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped

THE TOPPING: Espresso Whipped Cream (see Basic Whipped Cream and variations)

Bake the Chocolate Cookie Crust according to instructions; let cool (see recipe for Basic Crumb Crust with variations).

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk the coffee and cornstarch together until completely dissolved, then follow the Basic Cream Pie master recipe as directed. After removing the saucepan from the heat and whisking in the butter, add the chocolate. Pour the custard into the cooled pie crust. Press plastic wrap directly onto the top of the mixture and refrigerate until cold and firm throughout, at least 2 hours.

Make the Espresso Whipped Cream and top the pie before serving.

Serves 6-8.

Per serving, based on 8: 586 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 8 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 34 grams fat (19 grams saturated), 140 milligrams cholesterol, 247 milligrams sodium.

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This Earl Grey Latte Pie has Graham Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

This Earl Grey Latte Pie has Graham Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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This Earl Grey Latte Pie has Graham Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Earl Grey Latte Pie

Make sure to use extra-strong tea for this one, Taylor and Arguin advise: 4 tea bags for 2 cups of water (allowing for some evaporation). For a clever presentation, pour the custard into tea cups and serve on saucers. If you still want a crust, press the crumbs into the inside of the cups — no need to bake.

THE BASE: Graham Cracker Crust, baked and cooled

BASIC CREAM PIE FILLING (see Basic Cream Pie recipe)

THE PRIMARY ADDITION: 1 1/2 cups strongly brewed Earl Grey Tea

THE SECONDARY ADDITION: 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

THE TOPPING: Vanilla Whipped Cream

Bake the Graham Cracker Crust according to instructions; let cool (see recipe for Basic Crumb Crust with variations).

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk the tea and cornstarch together until completely dissolved, then follow the Basic Cream Pie master recipe as directed. After removing the saucepan from the heat and whisking in the butter, add the vanilla extract. Pour the custard into the cooled pie crust. Press plastic wrap directly onto the top of the mixture and refrigerate until cold and firm throughout, at least 2 hours.

Make the Vanilla Whipped Cream and top the pie before serving.

Serves 6-8.

Per serving, based on 8: 493 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 7 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 29 grams fat (17 grams saturated), 146 milligrams cholesterol, 196 milligrams sodium.

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You’ll top your Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie with raspberry jam or preserves. Inside your pie will be nutmeg and vanilla flavors. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

You’ll top your Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie with raspberry jam or preserves. Inside your pie will be nutmeg and vanilla flavors. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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You’ll top your Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie with raspberry jam or preserves. Inside your pie will be nutmeg and vanilla flavors. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie

Nutmeg and vanilla add a doughnut flavor to this dairy-rich filling that contrasts well with the tart-sweet preserves.

THE BASE: Animal Cracker Crust, baked and cooled

BASIC CREAM PIE FILLING (see Basic Cream Pie recipe)

THE PRIMARY ADDITION: 1 1/2 cups milk plus 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

THE SECONDARY ADDITION: 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

THE TOPPING: 1/4 cup raspberry jam or preserves, preferably seedless

Bake Animal Cracker Crust according to instructions; let cool (see recipe for Basic Crumb Crust with variations).

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk the milk, nutmeg and cornstarch together until completely dissolved, then follow the Basic Cream Pie master recipe as directed. After removing the saucepan from the heat and whisking in the butter, add the vanilla extract. Pour the custard into the cooled pie crust. Press plastic wrap directly onto the top of the mixture and refrigerate until cold and firm throughout, at least 2 hours.

Spread the top with jam or preserves before serving.

Serves 6-8.

Per serving, based on 8: 439 calories (percent of calories from fat, 40), 8 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 20 grams fat (11 grams saturated), 116 milligrams cholesterol, 232 milligrams sodium.

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This Salted Caramel Cream Pie uses Smucker’s Caramel Sauce as a main ingredient, and it’s topped with flaked salt. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

This Salted Caramel Cream Pie uses Smucker’s Caramel Sauce as a main ingredient, and it’s topped with flaked salt. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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This Salted Caramel Cream Pie uses Smucker’s Caramel Sauce as a main ingredient, and it’s topped with flaked salt. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Salted Caramel Cream Pie

A sprinkling of flaky Maldon salt transforms a filling built on supermarket caramel ice cream topping into a sophisticated delight. The cracker crust intensifies that irresistible salty-sweet flavor combo. Any of the other crumb crusts would work just as well.

THE BASE: Saltine Cracker Crust, baked and cooled

BASIC CREAM PIE FILLING (see Basic Cream Pie recipe)

THE PRIMARY ADDITION: 3/4 cup Smucker’s Caramel Sauce (from 1 12-ounce jar) plus 3/4 cup whole milk

THE SECONDARY ADDITION: 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

THE TOPPING: Maldon flaked salt or other large flaky salt, for sprinkling

Bake Saltine Crust according to instructions; let cool (see recipe for Basic Crumb Crust with variations).

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk the caramel sauce, milk and cornstarch together until completely dissolved, then follow the Basic Cream Pie master recipe as directed. After removing the saucepan from the heat and whisking in the butter, add the vanilla extract. Pour the custard into the cooled pie crust. Press plastic wrap directly onto the top of the mixture and refrigerate until cold and firm throughout, at least 2 hours.

Top with flaked salt before serving.

Serves 6-8.

Per serving, based on 8: 487 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 8 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 23 grams fat (13 grams saturated), 126 milligrams cholesterol, 475 milligrams sodium.

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This Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie has Animal Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

This Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie has Animal Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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This Jelly Doughnut Cream Pie has Animal Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Basic Crumb Crust with Variations

“We’ve had success using many different types of crumbs including crackers, cookies and even breakfast cereals to make crumb crusts,” says Chris Taylor. “If the fat content of the cookie you want to try (according to the nutrition label) is similar in weight to that of graham crackers, it usually works. Feel free to experiment, but depending on the cookie you are using, sometimes the butter and sugar need to be adjusted. A cookie or cracker with a higher fat content will usually require less butter to properly bake.”

Cookie or cracker crumbs

Sugar

Pinch of salt

Unsalted butter, melted and still warm

Place the cookies or crackers into a gallon-sized zip-close bag. Seal the bag and use a rolling pin to crush the cookies/crackers into fine crumbs. Transfer the crumbs to a medium bowl. Stir in the sugar and salt followed by the melted butter. (Alternatively, you can process the cookies/crackers to crumbs in the bowl of a food processor then pulse in the sugar, salt and melted butter to incorporate.)

Press the crumbs evenly on the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Place the crust in the freezer while heating the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the crust for 10 minutes. Place it on a rack to cool completely before adding the pie filling.

Graham Cracker Crust

5.5 ounces graham crackers (approximately 10 whole rectangular sheets)

2 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and still warm

Follow the instructions for the Basic Crumb Crust. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie crust.

Chocolate Cookie Crust

20 chocolate sandwich cookies, such as Oreos (no additional sugar is needed)

3 tablespoons butter, melted and still warm

Follow the instructions for the Basic Crumb Crust. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie crust.

Animal Cracker Crust

5.5 ounces animal crackers (we tested this recipe with Barnum’s Animal Crackers)

3 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons butter, melted and still warm

Follow the instructions for the Basic Crumb Crust. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie crust.

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This Salted Caramel Cream Pie has a Saltine Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

This Salted Caramel Cream Pie has a Saltine Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
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This Salted Caramel Cream Pie has a Saltine Cracker Crust. STYLING BY PAUL ARGUIN AND CHRIS TAYLOR / CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Saltine Cracker Crust

5 ounces saltine crackers

2 tablespoons sugar

8 tablespoons butter, melted and still warm

Follow the instructions for the Basic Crumb Crust. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie crust.

Basic Whipped Cream with Variations

1 cup cold heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

THE FLAVORING (see options)

In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer on medium speed to beat the heavy cream, sugar and THE FLAVORING until the mixture holds stiff peaks. This means that when the beaters are pulled from the bowl, the whipped cream keeps a pointy peak that doesn’t flop over. If the peak flops over, beat for 15 more seconds and test again. Spread over the top of the pie or dollop on individual slices.

Makes 2 cups whipped cream.

The flavoring options:

Vanilla Whipped Cream: Add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Grand Marnier Whipped Cream: Add 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur such as Cointreau or Triple Sec.

Espresso Whipped Cream: Add 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder or instant coffee.