Water Pie

This Depression-era dessert is sweet, rich, inexpensive, and absolutely irresistible.

Water Pie
Photo:

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Active Time:
5 mins
Total Time:
10 hrs 5 mins
Servings:
8 slices

There are certain recipes whose titles make you do a second take. Whoopie pie, pretzel salad, and slugburgers come to mind. And then there’s water pie. It sounds like a joke, but it’s something of a marvel. And now, thanks to pandemic-inspired thriftiness, water pie has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence.

What Is Water Pie?

Water pie is a recipe that grew out of the Great Depression, when basic kitchen staples such as milk and eggs were either in short supply, relatively expensive, or both. Smart cooks came up with a way to make a delicious, family-friendly dessert that required just the most humble ingredients—including water as its main one. Flour, sugar, vanilla extract, salt, butter, and a splash of vinegar round out the recipe. 

Water Pie

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

How to Make Water Pie

First, you’ll preheat the oven to 400°F, which might seem a little high for a pie—but it doesn’t bake at this temperature the entire time. You’ll pour water into an unbaked pie crust, drizzle it with vanilla and vinegar, and sprinkle the liquid with a combination of sugar, flour, and salt (without stirring).

Finally, thin slices of butter will float on top. The pie will bake for half of its time at 400°F, then finish baking at a slightly lower temperature of 375°F. It will need to chill for several hours to firm up, and then it’s ready for slicing.

Water Pie Ingredients

  • Pie crust: We recommend our Perfect Pie Crust (unbaked) for its superior flavor and texture (it’s also a frugal recipe), but you could substitute a store-bought crust if you’d rather. 
  • Water: A cup and a half of water fills the crust. Don’t worry—it gets thickened and sweetened with the other ingredients.
  • Vanilla extract: With sweet, rich fragrance, this is the main flavoring agent of the pie.
  • Apple cider vinegar: Most water pie recipes don’t call for vinegar, or perhaps suggest it as an optional addition. We say that it’s mandatory. Without it, the pie tastes “flat,” just one-note sweet. With it, there’s a more balanced, rounded flavor.
  • Granulated sugar: Simple, inexpensive white sugar is the sweetener here.
  • All-purpose flour: You’ll stir a little bit of flour together with the sugar (which helps prevent lumps). Without eggs, the flour does all the work of thickening the filling.
  • Kosher salt: Salt enhances all of the other flavors.
  • Butter: Thin slices of butter melt over the top of the filling as the pie bakes, adding richness.
Water Pie ingredients

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

What Does Water Pie Taste Like?

If you can imagine the “goo” at the bottom of a pecan pie—but imagine that it’s made with white sugar and light corn syrup, so less caramel-ish in flavor—you’re close to knowing what water pie tastes like.

The butter melts atop the filling without thoroughly incorporating into it. That means that when you chill the pie (necessary to get the filling to set), the butter congeals on top. This is in no way unpleasant. With each bite, the thin layer of butter immediately melts on your palate and fills your mouth with buttery richness.

As noted above, the small amount of cider vinegar gives the filling a more complex flavor so that it’s not just one-note sweet.

How to Know When Water Pie Is Done

Go with our cook times, making sure to shield the pie crust at the halfway point to prevent it from getting too browned. There’s no ideal visual or textural cue to let you know the pie is done; it will be very loose and look quite watery when it’s done. But after you chill it thoroughly, the filling gels and sets.

How to Store and Serve Water Pie

Loosely cover the pie, and store it in the refrigerator for up to five days. Serve it cold, or cut slices and allow them to come to room temperature. We don’t recommend heating leftovers or serving the pie warm.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups water

  • Perfect Pie Crust (unbaked)

  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 1 1/2 tsp. cider vinegar

  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

  • 6 tbsp cold butter, cut into thin slices

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

  2. Pour water into Perfect Pie Crust. Drizzle vanilla and vinegar over the water.

    water pie unbaked

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

    Stir together sugar, flour, and salt in a medium bowl.

    flour, salt, and sugar in bowl

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

    Sprinkle sugar mixture over water mixture in crust.

    flour mixture added to water pie

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

    Float butter slices on top.

    water pie with butter pats

    Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

  3. Bake at 400°F for 30 minutes. Shield pie crust, and reduce oven temperature to 375°F. Bake at 375°F for 30 minutes. Remove pie from oven (filling will be very loose and watery). Cool pie to room temperature, about 1 hour. Loosely cover pie and refrigerate until fully set, about 8 hours.

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