The great pie debate
Many families have a few recipes handed down through the generations, pies whose aromas mingle with memories of Christmases past, or a potato salad that’s made an appearance at every family reunion since the Stone Age. The Wisconsin Union family is no exception, and for many alumni there is one dessert that inspires loyalty and nostalgia unlike any other: fudge bottom pie.
Sue Ellen Knutson, a UW alumna, remembers her first bite of the famous confection like it was yesterday. She was six years old and on campus visiting her older sister, a student at the time, and grandmother who worked in the Memorial Union’s kitchen. “Somehow I had the chance to taste that pie and it was fabulous–the rich chocolate, the creamy filling and the whipped cream…” she remembers (even though she could barely see over the counter at the time). “I really loved it and always wanted a slice for myself. Of course, that never happened, and I always told myself that when I grow up, I’d get a whole slice just for me.”
Knutson isn’t the only one with fond memories of the pie. For over 60 years the UW-Madison community has been falling victim to this rich treasure, and it remains the most famous of the Union’s desserts.
But is it really a Union original? Over the years, the pie’s creation has often been credited to Carson Gulley, the celebrated head chef for UW’s residence halls, but that assertion could get you in a lot of trouble on Langdon Street. Many people around here claim that fudge-bottom pie is a Union creation, debuting sometime around 1945. Gulley certainly did serve the pie in the residence halls, and even published his recipe in a cookbook, but his version of fudge-bottom pie was a little different from what you can find in the Union today. His recipe calls for two layers of custard instead of the dark, fudgy layer of chocolate that gives the pie its allure.
Nobody knows for sure whose pie came first, the Wisconsin Union or University Housing version, but even today the two entities continue to serve similar, though not quite identical, versions of the iconic dessert. To read more about fudge-bottom pie’s long history, check out this article from On Wisconsin magazine.
If reading about the famous Union dessert’s soft, gooey layers has got your mouth watering, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to tame your craving. Here on campus the pie is sold in Lakefront on Langdon regularly, and occasionally appears in other eateries on campus as well.
The Union’s secret recipe is zealously guarded, but below you can find UW Housing’s recipe for the pie, which is about as close as it gets. We tried it out, and it’s scrumptious!
Just a few tips: Make sure you boil the cream filling long enough so it will set up firm, and you might want to think about cutting the custard portion in half. We had enough leftover custard to keep us feeling stuffed all weekend. Or you could do like Knutson and make one pie for yourself and one for everyone else. That’s the beauty of being an adult; you can finally have your own slice.
UW Housing’s Fudge-Bottom Pie
1 1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. butter
Mix thoroughly and press firmly in bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie tin. Pre-made pie crusts will also work.
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
3 1-oz. squares semi-sweet baking chocolate
Dissolve sugar in water and bring to a boil. Add chocolate and melt. Beat well. While hot spread over bottom of crust
3 cups cold milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup cold milk
1/3 cup egg yolks, beaten
2 tsp. vanilla extract
Place 3 cups milk in top of a double boiler and heat until almost boiling. Blend in sugar. Stir in cornstarch. Stir together salt, remaining milk, egg yolks. Add to hot milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a whip to keep smooth. Cool slightly. Then add vanilla extract and pour over chocolate in crust. Chill.
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbsp. Granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
Grated or shaved chocolate.
Place cream in mixer bowl. Add sugar and vanilla, then whip until stiff. Spread on top of pie. Garnish with chocolate.Place cream in mixer bowl. Add sugar and vanilla, then whip until stiff. Spread on top of pie. Garnish with chocolate.
Do you have a special memory of eating the famous fudge bottom pie? We invite you to share your own story in the comments section below! Comments may be featured in future articles or on our social media sites.
By Lydia Statz