And they’re off! What, you’re too busy with the Giants and the A’s to watch the Kentucky Derby? It’s only the biggest horse race of the year, people.
Alas, all those TV ads for Golden Gate Fields notwithstanding, San Francisco is not a big racing town. In New York City, you can get the Racing Form in every corner newsstand. Aqueduct and Belmont, two top-notch tracks, are a quick subway or train ride away. For three weeks every August, a certain segment of NY society, high and low, moves up to Saratoga Springs to revel in the daily races at the gingerbread-pretty track up there, in between dinners at 3-star restaurants (with city prices to match) and performances of the New York City Ballet.
On any given sunny weekend morning, one or both of my parents was apt to scan the newspaper-reading heads of the family and announce brightly, “Hey, this is a great day to go to the track!” Into the Volvo we’d go, Mom, Dad, and three precocious girls, all of whom knew how to box a triple before they were ten.
My dad read the racing sections of the paper religiously, watched racing programs on TV, and was known to narrate famous races–like Secretariat’s incredible 31-length win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes–in the shower, like other people might sing. My mom just liked the energy of it, the drama and yes, the chance of winning. She bet on jockeys she liked, on names that caught her fancy or reminded her of us. Naturally, she usually came home with a purse full of tens and twenties, where my dad typically broke even. All through college, every few months I’d get a letter from my mom with a few five-dollar bills tucked inside. “Stopped to OTB on my way to Lincoln Center,” she’d write. “Bet on Stephanie’s Man, and it won! Go out to lunch or do something fun.”
Horse racing, as a result, is the only sport I know anything about. And while I’ve seen a lot of the New York State stakes races on their home turf, I’ve never made it out to Kentucky for the hats-and-juleps festivities that turn the first weekend in May into a bluegrassy, bourbon-y celebration of all this horsey. One of the best parties I’ve ever been to in San Francisco was a Derby Day party, though. A group of friends, all transplants from Kentucky, threw open the doors of their three-story Victorian to all bourbon-toting comers.
Like the English races at Ascot, the Derby is a hat-heavy event, the bigger and more flower- and feather-bedecked the better. In keeping with this tradition, one wall was hung with dozens of thrift-store hats for anyone who hadn’t brought their own. Televisions were set up in every corner, all broadcasting the pre-race festivities. Outside in the backyard, a live bluegrass band was playing, and there was an elaborate group-wagering system for those wanting to bet.
Having recently attended a rather posh media dinner sponsored by Maker’s Mark, I happened to have an unopened bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon to offer up when I walked in. Because, of course, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep, and you can’t make a proper julep without Kentucky bourbon.
Besides the juleps, and the platters of pimento cheese and Ritz crackers, was the true star: a table full of warmed-up Derby Pies mail-ordered in dry ice straight from Kern’s Kitchen in Kentucky, which holds the U.S. patent and trademark on the name. Anyone can make and serve a gooey, brown-sugary pie studded with walnuts and chocolate, but only the savvy folks at Keen’s can call it Derby Pie. The pies were sweet, so sweet, lush with nuts and chocolate and just about perfect under a billow of bourbon-scented whipped cream, a gussied-up cross between down-home shoo-fly and plantation pecan. Like garlic fries on Opening Day, the pies are served by the thousands over Derby Day weekend, and shipped to homesick Kentuckians all year round.
So today, you can celebrate your winnings or tear up your tickets in good company with a warm slice of this excellent pie. A note on the ingredients: most Derby pie recipes call for light corn syrup, which is clear and bland and nothing but sweet, easy to find in any supermarket. Now if you were shopping anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, it would be easy to come home from the grocery store with a can of cane syrup, an amber syrup made from crushed and boiled sugarcane. (Steen’s, made in Louisiana, is the most widely-known brand.) Like maple syrup and sorghum, it has high notes and low, with caramel accents and an almost buttery texture.
The British version is Lyle’s Golden Syrup, sold in a decorative, green-and-gold tin that’s often easier to find around here than authentic cane syrup. You can also explore the different types of brown sugar out there beyond your usual box of C&H. Damp, richly flavored muscavado, available at the Pasta Shop, is my current favorite.
Derby Day Pie
Because the filling goes in rather gooey, I like to pre-bake my crust a little before adding the filling, just enough to get the crust pale blond and dry to the touch. Line your crust with a large square of parchment paper or aluminum foil, then weigh down with a handful of dry beans or ceramic pie weights to prevent the crust from puffing up. Bake at 400F for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove paper and weights and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes to an hour before filling.
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup or cane syrup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons bourbon
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks
1 single pie crust, blind-baked until dry, slightly blistered and pale golden blond
Bourbon whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream, preferably Straus organic or at least not ultra- pasteurized
1 tablespoon bourbon
2 tsp powdered sugar (optional)
1. In a small, heavy pot over medium heat, bring sugar, syrup, bourbon, and butter to a boil. Simmer for 1 minute, then remove from heat and let cool until just warm. While mixture is cooling, preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Whisk eggs and vanilla into sugar mixture. Whisk in flour and salt. Stir in chocolate and nuts.
3. Pour mixture into pie shell. Bake 50 to 60 minutes. Check after 30 minutes; if crust edges are getting too brown, cover with aluminum foil. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.
4. While pie is cooling, make whipped cream. Pour cream into a chilled bowl. Beat with a whisk or hand-held electric mixture until gently thickened. Add bourbon and optional sugar. (I think the pie is plenty sweet as it is, so the plain richness of unsweetened cream makes a good foil, but it’s up to you. Taste it without sugar first, then decide.) Continue beating until mixture mounds up in soft peaks. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
5. Serve pie warm with whipped cream on the side.