Friday, February 17th, 2012

Is Impossible Pie Impossible?

A series about recipes that may seem odd or outmoded and yet we're curious to try!

“I'm going to make an Impossible Pie today,” I announced.

“What's an Impossible Pie?” asked my six-year-old son, just as I hoped he would for the purpose of writing this introduction. “Is it a pie that no one's ever made before?”

“No,” I said.

I was about to go on when my husband spoke up, “Well, when you think about it, every pie is a pie that no one's ever made before…"

There was a brief silence.

My son later guessed that an Impossible Pie must be "very, very hard to make.” But this is not true, of course—as the Betty Crocker site adamantly points out, the impossible pie is impossibly easy. You don't need to make a crust for it. Instead, you just mix up all the ingredients together—the ingredients for the filling and the crust—and while it cooks the pie forms its own crust. But would that really work? And how would it taste?

Impossible Pie first became widely known in the 1970s when it was printed on the backs of Bisquick boxes. The Bisquick mix—you may have seen the yellow boxes in a cupboard or two growing up—was reportedly invented in 1930 by a General Mills executive who, while on a journey by train, complimented the chef in the dining car on his fresh biscuits. The chef showed him how he pre-mixed shortening with the dry ingredients of flour, salt and baking powder and kept the mixture on ice in the train kitchen so he could prepare the biscuits very quickly. When they mass-marketed the idea, General Mills replaced the shortening with hydrogenated oil so that the product wouldn't need to be refrigerated. At first they marketed it solely as a fast way to make biscuits, but soon, in an effort to increase sales, they started suggesting that consumers use it to make a variety of other foods, including pizza dough, pancakes, dumplings, cookies and, yes, you guessed it, even pie.

According to the excellent food-history website, The Food Timeline, the origins of Impossible Pie, are shrouded in mystery, as befits such an enigmatic creation. The first Impossible Pie recipe introduced by Bisquick was a coconut one; this indicates that the recipe might have originated in the South where coconut pies have long been popular. In a 1993 Houston Chronicle article, excerpted on the site, Marcia Copeland, then the "director of Betty Crocker foods and publications," essentially confirms this, saying "we first saw the recipe for (crustless) coconut custard pies in Southern community cookbooks."

The coconut version must have gone over very well because soon Bisquick was suggesting all sorts of variations, both savoury and sweet, including but certainly not limited to: Impossible Peach and Raspberry Pie, Impossible Chicken Pot Pie, Impossible Pumpkin Pecan Pie, and Impossible Roast Pepper and Feta Cheese Pie. Just think of something you could put into a pie and there's an Impossible version of it out there.

At some point, sadly, the company started to refer to the pies as Impossibly Easy Pies, as evidenced by this cookbook. And today, as mentioned, anyone visiting the Betty Crocker website will find a compendium of Impossibly Easy Pie recipes, names that lack the alchemical flair of their predecessors. One can only surmise that the marketing department became concerned that modern cooks would make the same assumption that my six-year-old did, and would be turned off by the notion of anything remotely difficult, never mind something ostensibly impossible. Maybe cooks were more willing to try the impossible in 1970. At that point, after all, the song “To Dream the Impossible Dream” was still only five years old. Or maybe the first women to try this recipe were hippies and on drugs and all impossibilities seemed wonderfully possible to them. Who knows? At any rate, the notion that a pie once called “Impossible” must now be called “Impossibly Easy” says something profound about our civilization, perhaps that it is in decline (i.e. its citizens no longer have the gumption to attempt to do remarkable, difficult things). Or, on second thought, perhaps this means that the civilization is still rising (i.e. things that were once difficult for its citizens to achieve are now a piece of cake. Or pie, as it were.) Or perhaps it is simply a sign that we are a civilization in recline, one declining to rise, one in which rest is to be valued above all else, which works with the whole aging population thing. It is clearly a sign of something. It's just of what that is still unclear.

I had my first encounter with the Impossible Pie at a church supper last fall. (We don't tend to go to church services but we do tend to go to their suppers.) There was a white board by the dessert table, which listed the twenty different kinds of pies on offer. There was the ubiquitous apple, there was the usual cherry, and the familiar pumpkin and the routine lemon-meringue and your garden-variety strawberry-rhubarb. My eyes glazed over as they traveled down the list of names until suddenly I saw the words “Impossible Pie.” Just seeing those two words side by side—two words I had never before seen next to each other—made my day. What kind of world-weary person wouldn't want to taste an Impossible Pie? Just try to think of another food with such a delightful, interesting name. Or try to coin one. Let us just say: it is not easy.

(When asked if they could think of such a delightful, interesting name for a food, my son said, “No.” My daughter, age two, blinked. My husband suggested “Insidious Red Pepper Grunt” and “Zoophagous Asparagus” and “Unfortunate Walnut Omelet.” I rest my case.)

So anyway. On to the recipe. For the Impossible Coconut Pie, I used this one on the Bisquick site. Except I adapted it, by using original Bisquick instead of the gluten-free version (made with rice flour) they are currently trying to push.


3 eggs
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup flaked or shredded coconut
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup Bisquick mix

I actually used organic cane sugar instead of white sugar because that is what I had in the house. And if you are opposed to using a commerical mix but still want to try Impossible Pie (and who wouldn't?), Wikipedia tells us that “one cup of Bisquick can be substituted by a mix of one cup of flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of oil or melted butter.” If you're not opposed to commerical mixes but worry about your health, there's also a HeartSmart version of Bisquick you could use, which contains no trans fats and no cholesterol.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch glass pie plate with a cooking spray like Pam. In a large bowl, stir together all ingredients until blended. Some other recipes I found online suggest mixing it all up in a blender; I used a little handheld mixer for the sake of ease, although the Bisquick recipe doesn't suggest using anything more than a spoon or a fork. Pour this mixture into the pie plate. At this point I also sprinkled a great deal of the leftover coconut over the top of the pie, something that wasn't suggested by Bisquick either. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown and a knife inserted in the center of the pie comes out clean.

Bisquick didn't tell us whether to serve the pie warm or cold, so I did both. The first piece I cut and served was still quite warm. The top of the warm pie looked suitably crust-like, the bottom hardly at all. After an hour or so of setting, the top still looked suitably crust-like and the bottom looked marginally more so. In both cases, the slice of pie held its pie-like shape. I have to admit, however, that as a lover of a good pie crust, there was nothing about this pie that tasted remotely pie-crust-like.

The rest of my family concurred. “Does this pie have crust?” I asked as I served it and they began to sample.

“Not really,” said Grampa. “A little on the top. But I like it.”

The others nodded in agreement.

“So would you still call it a pie, though?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Grampa, firmly.

Everyone looked surprised that I even asked, which I found odd, as doesn't a pie get its essential pie-ness from its crust?

“Um,” said my husband.

The family ate for a moment in silence.

“Does Shepherd's Pie have a crust?” my husband then asked rhetorically.

I shook my head. And then nodded. “Point taken,” I said.

The problem with our particular Impossible Pie's crust might have been just that: our particular problem. Perhaps using the cane sugar made a difference in its composition. Or maybe I overmixed the batter when I used an electric mixer instead of a fork. When I googled photographs of other people's Impossible Pies, I could see that some of the crusts were more successfully impossible than others. (This is the best one I've seen, and it looks admirably crusty.)

As for taste, the Impossible Coconut Pie is good, but not impossibly so. It's sweet and custardy, tasting, very much like a mixture of coconut and eggs. I garnished my own piece with a dollop of raspberry syrup and whipped cream, which I found delicious and it looked pretty, too.

Originally, I intended to make six Impossible Pies, and all before breakfast in honour of the White Queen, but I need my sleep and, while the pies are good, they are not that good. However, I did attempt one more, a savoury one to counter the sweet, from a recipe also found on the Betty Crocker site. I followed the recipe for these Impossible Mini Cheeseburger Pies exactly and so will not reiterate here. I refuse to call them Impossibly Easy Mini Cheeseburger Pies on principle. In fact, I refuse to call them pies on principle, either, because they looked nothing like pies at any point during their creation. They looked much more like Impossible Cheeseburger Cupcakes—there was absolutely no pie-like crust in evidence but they maintained their shape beautifully—so that is what I called them.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
Through the Looking Glass.

Related: Chemical Apple Pie and The War-Rations Diet

Stephany Aulenback lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two children. She blogs at Crooked House.

25 Comments / Post A Comment

vespavirgin (#1,422)

My mom used to make the zucchini and cheese version. She was kinda the master of these easy recipes that came on the backs of boxes, or that involved Campbell's Cream of Anything. Now she just eats cheese and ice cream and those pouches of Indian food, which are much easier than having to mix something.

Brunhilde (#1,225)

I had forgotten about "Impossible Cheeseburger Pie" before reading this. Funny how even the memory of it still makes me want to puke up everything I've eaten, ever.

Moon-bat (#8,662)

What? Noooooo, this looks like something my kids would absolutely love!

automaticdoor (#11,521)

@Moon-bat I like Cheeseburger Pie! Or, at least I did the last time I had it, which was about seven years ago?

Brunhilde (#1,225)

@Moon-bat They might! My dad loved it. I just have… issues with food memories from childhood, and still don't enjoy anything with ground beef in it to this day.

crescentmelissa (#10,702)

I adore back of the box recipes. And I really love these posts.

apb (#9,461)

A metal pie plate and more baking time might help crustify things a bit more next time! Also, I am not at all the target audience for this recipe but I really, really want one.

myfanwy (#1,124)

Oof, it's a good thing they make Heart Smart or whatever version it is, the original Bisquick has a deliciously disgusting amount of trans fat.

irieagogo (#209,640)

I have made impossible pie before! But not this sweet kind. Mine was "Impossible Broccoli Pie" and it was in a Betty Crocker cookbook, an '80s version, with terrible recipes that call for a can of this or a cup of things like Bisquick. However, my fabulous vintage 1960 Betty Crocker cookbook is so fuckin boss, it tells how to do EVERYTHING from scratch, even how to boil pasta or bake a potato. I think it was meant to be a gal's first wedded cookbook, and assumes one knows nuttin about anything in the kitchen. A fabulous book, I use it often.

Anyway, impossible broccoli pie: I sprayed the (metal, good point!) pie pan with cooking spray, laid down chopped veggies like broccoli, some green onion & red pepper or whatever, sprinkle cheese on top and add the egg/milk/Bisquick mixture over the top of all that. Bake in the oven and voila! Poor gal's quiche! I fed it to friends and they liked it. The Bisquick really settled to the bottom and formed some crustiness that was not as serious as a real pie crust, but saved the dish from just being a baked egg casserole. Definitely easier than the work of making a real quiche.

BoxMeowBox (#215,449)

@irieagogo Oh, I copped a late 50s version of the Betty Crocker cookbook, in MINT condition, at an estate sale (I still wonder how a cookbook lasted that long without being used, picturing this miserable person who refused on principle to cook by recipe). It's one of my treasured possessions and I still refer to it for the occasional basic recipe. Also, the illustrations are a gas — all these slim ladies with aprons around their tiny waists, swooping in with delicious food to serve to their beaming perfect families.

Also, "impossible pies" and the Apollo space program occupy some of the same real estate in my brain, for some reason. Same era, I guess.

NoReally (#217,942)

I baked with raw sugar once and it definitely made a difference. Re cake or pie, the sorting principle is: If it is commonly baked in a pie plate then it's pie. Example A. Laurie Colwin's totally delicious and easy Nantucket Cranberry Pie .

irieagogo (#209,640)

Also, one of my mom's favorite jokes when I was a kid:

Knock knock!

Who is there?


Bisquick who?

Bisquick! Yer pants are on fire!


pacifica (#217,944)

The first time I ever had this pie it was called Impossible Salmon Pie and it was actually quite good! Cooked salmon was added to the recipe with some dill — and a sour cream and dill sauce was on the side!

Stephany, I love your writing style, it has a nice rhythm … a sort of stream of consciousness style that flips from explanatory to opinion/musings quite well!

irieagogo (#209,640)

@BoxMeowBox~~~I have those same illustrated wasp-waisted ladies luring their families to the table with tentacles of pie steam curling under their noses, as sure as fish hooks. Also, the color saturation makes certain photos, like "strawberry shortcake" look like crime scenes, they are so lurid. There is some fantastic hostess ware in the table settings—the stuff used for "brunch" is fabulous and turquoise! There is a huge copper urn for coffee. I could go on and on. I wanna LIVE in my Betty Crocker cookbook and have the whole cast of Mad Men come to my house for appropriately served meals & snacks.

irieagogo (#209,640)

@BoxMeowBox~~~I have those same illustrated wasp-waisted ladies luring their families to the table with tentacles of pie steam curling under their noses, as sure as fish hooks. Also, the color saturation makes certain photos, like "strawberry shortcake," look like crime scenes, they are so lurid. There is some fantastic hostess ware in the table settings—the stuff used for "brunch" is fabulous and turquoise! There is a huge copper urn for coffee. I could go on and on. I wanna LIVE in my Betty Crocker cookbook and have the whole cast of Mad Men come to my house for appropriately served meals & snacks.

Smitros (#5,315)

Pie se puede.

liz keitz@twitter (#176,736)

I've never heard of "Impossible Pie" before, but it sounds a lot like a recipe for Clafouti (my favorite super easy dessert) If I ever have an oven again maybe I'll try it.

Stephanie@twitter (#218,044)

I gotta say, "Divinity Fudge" may give Impossible Pie a run for the money in the weird/wonderful food stuff names. And it's not even fudge!!

for once i want to see the words "crack pie" on the white board above the dessert table at the church supper. this was a fun read. hurrah for pie crust nazis!

pollock (#218,593)

I made possible the impossible!
Or at least this coconut custard version. Instead of a glass pie dash I used the type of bowls you would use for French Onion Soup to make individual little pies. Things I noted: it came out of the oven about twice it's actual size. Was very custardy in the center, but that did create a set "crust" around the edge of the pie. Not sure it would have help it's shape though. Incredibly easy to make and great with vanilla ice cream.

While living in Dakar in the 70s (!) my mom and 18-year-old I decided we'd make an impossible pie; it was actually an apple pie but it would be impossible to find the stuff for it. Where the hell do you find shortening in Dakar in 1975? I think lots of rotgut red wine was consumed (by me, on the sly) but somehow we got it done, through sheer ingenuity (we may have used palm oil for shortening)(no, not THAT palm oil, I mean oil from our palms because it was so humid there) but believe it or not, There Were Apples, so it was guaranteed to be an Apple Pie no matter WHAT we used.

My memory is that it ended up looking, feeling and TASTING exactly like the apple pie I had in my youth.

SeanP (#4,058)

Insidious Red Pepper Grunt – it's what's for dinner. Seriously, very enjoyable article. Bisquick was a staple in our house growing up, until such time as Mom decided she wasn't laying out any more of her hard-earned cash on Bisquick when she could just easily mix up her own biscuit mix for cheaper (as I recall the recipe quoted above from Wikipedia was approximately what she did, but she used Crisco as she wanted the stuff to be shelf-stable). I'm not sure you save any significant amount of money doing this, but…

jhonsom1 (#218,991)


Girlparts (#219,041)

Does anyone know if this works with the gluten-free Bisquick?

@Girlparts The recipe I found on the Betty Crocker site actually specified the gluten-free stuff, so it should work perfectly!

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