Greta's Amazing Chocolate Pie

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post here that wasn’t about weight management, and I just made this pie for my birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe.

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday this year (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.



1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

A quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth- feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)


Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

White pepper
1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This year was the first time I tried this experiment, and I think it was a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode.

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! I’m toying with the idea of adding liquor, like rum or Kahlua or madeira. Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka.

Speaking of which:


For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

But I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. And yes, I realize I am a bad, bad person for running this recipe in January, right when lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight. What can I say. I’m an atheist, and therefore have no moral foundation and no reason to have compassion for others. Happy eating, and happy New Year!

Greta's Amazing Chocolate Pie

Greta Speaking at Stanford About Atheism and Sexuality, May 10

I have a new speaking gig scheduled! I’ll be speaking at Stanford University about atheism and sexuality — my two favorite polite dinner-table topics — on Monday, May 10, from 7 to 9 pm. I’ll be speaking for an hour, with plenty of time for Q&A afterward. The event is sponsored by Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford, and is part of my ongoing gig on the speakers’ bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. (Who are awesome, by the way, and you should become a fan of them on Facebook.)

The event will be at Building 420, Room 041, Main Quad, Stanford (here’s a map). If you’ll be in the Bay Area, stop by, listen to me gas on, and come say howdy!

Greta Speaking at Stanford About Atheism and Sexuality, May 10

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Atheists Have Morality

Scarlet letter

I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.

If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

Atheists have morality, as much as religious believers. We just don’t think our moral compass is planted in us by God or supernatural forces, and we don’t think fear of God’s punishment is necessary to be a good person. We base our morality in this life: our empathy with others, and our observations about what causes suffering and happiness. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Atheists Have Morality

A Safe Place to Land: Making Atheism Friendly for The Deconverting

Scarlet letter

How can we make people who are questioning their faith feel that atheism is okay?

In one of those coincidences that would have made me think the universe was trying to tell me something (back in the days when I thought the universe was trying to tell me things), this question has come up a couple different times in the last few days. PZ at Pharyngula has a conversation going about what an atheist community is; at Daylight Atheism, Jeremy commented about a theist friend who ended a conversation about whether religion was intelligible by asking what his life would be worth if he didn’t have his faith.

And it’s occurring to me: We spend a lot of time putting cracks in the foundation of religion: arguing why it’s mistaken, arguing why it’s harmful, arguing why the arguments and ideas supporting it are unsupportable.


But we don’t spend as much time — some, but not as much — letting believers know that, if and when their faith does finally crumble, atheism is a safe place to land.

And we don’t spend nearly as much time as we should actually making atheism a safe place to land.

A question keeps getting raised in the atheosphere. It’s not the only question I want to gas on about in this post, but it’s one of them: Do we need to create some sort of atheist equivalent of church?

For those of us who don’t find the appeal of church all that appealing, it’s easy to dismiss this. I’m not much of a joiner — I’m a loner, I’m a rebel, don’t try to change me, baby — and I’m really not interested in any sort of church substitute. I’m happy to get my need for community satisfied in the secular world: folk dancing, hot chocolate parties, political demonstrations, orgies. I mean, I wasn’t a churchgoer even when I had spiritual beliefs. I’m not going to start now.


But I also remember what it was like when my belief in the afterlife was crumbling. It was kind of terrifying. And a big part of what made it so terrifying was that I felt like I was on my own. I had to find my own way to my own safe place to land. And it was therefore a longer and more traumatic journey than it really needed to be.

I’m not sure an atheist church would have helped, though. Again, I’m not much of a joiner, and even though I knew of a church that didn’t see belief in God as important or necessary — namely, the Unitarians — it never grabbed my imagination. Not enough to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning, anyway.

But the atheosphere definitely might have helped. The atheosphere is clearly helpful to a lot of new atheists (and a lot of old ones, too), as well as to believers who are questioning their faith. It offers support, new ideas, coping strategies, places to vent, a general feeling of not being alone, etc. I think if I’d had the atheosphere when I was losing my religion, I wouldn’t have had to re-invent the “life is still valuable even though it’s not permanent” wheel. And I’d have had some helping hands to guide me through my dark night of the soulless.


For me, the online atheist community is plenty. But some people do have this freakish need for a community that involves the physical presence of other people. (I know. Weird, huh?)

For about the billionth time, I’m going to make a comparison to the queer community. Especially to the earlier days of the queer community, when coming out was scarier and harder even than it is now, and when our community wasn’t nearly as large or as visible, and when people who came out stood to lose a whole lot more than they generally do now.

Just like new atheists and people who are beginning to lose their faith, newly out queers and people who were beginning to struggle with their sexual identity needed to know that — when they left their old world behind, when in some cases lost their families and jobs and homes — they’d have a safe place to land, a community and a chosen family to land into.


And providing those safe places — bookstores, bars, cafes, clinics, support groups, sex clubs, dances, diners — was one of the most important things that the queer community did to make itself strong and powerful and happy. It still is. (An online world would have helped immensely in those earlier days… but I doubt that by itself it would have been enough.)

And yet — hammering the analogy into the ground — building queer and queer-friendly churches was only one part of that effort. And by far not the largest part.

So here is my question.


We do have communities that we can offer to new atheists and people who are questioning their faith. We can offer them a vast, lively, and rapidly- growing online community of the godless, in a wide range of styles and snark levels. We have some in- the- flesh groups — political activist organizations, social groups — for people who want that. We can also point people at the insanely varied options for secular community in the world, communities that offer companionship and meaning and a sense of pulling together towards a higher purpose: political organizations to bowling leagues, swingers’ groups to book clubs, charities to historical re-enactment societies. And people who have left religion but still miss its ritual and community can be always be pointed at the Unitarian Universalists. (It’s kind of what they’re there for — non-denominational religion without the need for all that pesky God stuff.)

So is there, in fact, a need for all of these things in one place?

Upraised hands

Do we need atheist organizations that are in the flesh (as opposed to online), and that have some of the comforting ritual offered by religious organizations and services, and that are specifically about atheism instead of just being non-antithetical to it? Ones that focus, not just on what’s wrong with religion, but on what’s right with atheism/ humanism/ secularism? Would that help new atheists, and proto- new- atheists, to feel that atheism was safe — emotionally, morally, psychologically, socially? When people are leaving their old home — their emotional home, their social home, indeed their familiar physical home — would something like an atheist church make some of them feel that they had a good new home to go to?

I don’t know that I needed it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not needed.

Let me put it this way: Would that have helped you?

And if not: What would have helped you?

Fosbury high jump

If you’re an atheist or some other non-believer… what did help you? I don’t mean what helped you lose your faith; we talked about that already. I mean, What made your transition to atheism go easier? When you were making your leap of non-faith, what helped you feel that godlessness would be a safe place to land?

Was it ideas about a godless philosophy of death? A godless meaning of life? An understanding of godless morality? Exposure to the things that get lots of atheists all excited, like scientific discovery? The awareness of a thriving atheist community? The simple example of other atheists obviously living their lives, obviously being happy and good people? Something else entirely?

And was there help that you didn’t get, that you now wish you had gotten? What would have made your coming-out easier?

And if you’re a believer who’s seriously questioning your faith… is there anything about becoming an atheist that’s making you hold back? Are there any fears you have about what life would be like as an atheist that you think atheists could do a better job addressing?

Coming out day haring

I think that if we look at what we did and didn’t get when we were coming out — at what made our transition into godlessness easier and what made it harder — we could do a better job of making atheism a safer place to land. And that would make our community stronger and better for all of us.


A Safe Place to Land: Making Atheism Friendly for The Deconverting

Untested by Definition: A Rant on Alternative Medicine

I blogged about this a little while back, but I made the mistake of burying it in a carnival announcement, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. So I’m re-posting it as its very own post.

Skeptico’s piece on the lack of testing in alternative medicine really hit it out of the park, I thought. And it reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to say for a while about conventional versus alternative medicine.

In her never-ending attempt to be fair, Ingrid has pointed out that alternative medicine is untested somewhat by definition. Once an alternative treatment gets some good, placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that it works, it’s no longer “alternative” — it’s conventional medicine by definition. (The use of meditation to reduce stress is a good example.)

But in fact, I think that’s the whole point. The dividing line between conventional and alternative medicine isn’t any particular opinion or theory about treatment. The dividing line is whether or not it’s been carefully tested, using the scientific method, to minimize the effects of human error and bias as much as is humanly possible.

What I don’t understand is why practitioners and promoters of alternative medicine think that’s a bad thing.

Alternative medicine boosters often accuse conventional Western doctors and medical researchers of being close-minded, biased against any theories and opinions other than their own. But the whole point of science (including medical science) and the scientific method is that it acts as a screen against bias and preconception: an imperfect screen, to be a sure, but a screen nonetheless. It’s an extremely humbling, often disappointing process.

Of course doctors will sometimes have initial skepticism about new ideas. Medical providers are human, with the universal human attachment to being right. And initial skepticism about new ideas — not close-mindedness, but skepticism — is appropriate in medicine, and indeed in any scientific field. But medicine does change and move forward, quite rapidly these days… and it couldn’t do that if medical researchers and providers were consistently mulish and intractable about considering new theories and treatments. Medical journals are loaded with new ideas — some of them radically new.

And of course doctors can be biased and even arrogant. But how is that not true of alternative practitioners? They’re every bit as biased to believe in their theories as conventional practitioners, every bit as likely to succumb to confirmation bias and cherrypick positive results while ignoring negative ones. And they don’t have the advantage of having placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies to back up their arrogance and show that their results aren’t just confirmation bias at work.

Which, again, is kind of the whole point. If the only difference between conventional and alternative medicine is that conventional medicine has, by definition, been carefully tested using the scientific method… then how is alternative medicine the better choice? How is it anything other than the Galileo fallacy in action?

And as Ingrid has also pointed out: Doctors and medical researchers, probably even more than other scientists, could give a rat’s ass about being personally proven wrong if it means getting at the truth. Because the truth is what’s going to help them treat their sick, suffering, and dying patients. Ingrid is an HIV nurse, and if it could be conclusively shown that homeopathy, or Reiki, or acupuncture, or even for Pete’s sake prayer, could cure HIV or even alleviate it, she’d be all over it like white on rice. The reason she uses the treatments that she uses is that they’ve been through the trial by fire: they’ve been carefully tested and shown to be effective. If there were a set of placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that HIV could be cured or effectively treated by sprinkling holy water on goat entrails, she’d be right there on the Catholic goat farm with the sacrificial knife.

But again, if there were a set of placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that HIV could be cured by sprinkling holy water on goat entrails, then it wouldn’t be alternative medicine. It’d be conventional medicine, by definition.

Because conventional medicine, by definition, is medicine that’s been shown to work.

Untested by Definition: A Rant on Alternative Medicine