A Bermudian Christmas without cassava pie would be like Easter without kites. This unusual dish – a sweet, spicy cake with a meat filling – is as essential to a local Christmas dinner as the turkey itself. Families usually make a large quantity and eat it hot, cold and fried in slices all during Christmas week (and often tuck some into the freezer for Easter, too). To the uninitiated, cassava pie is an odd mix of sweet and savoury. But it’s a combination that seems to please the Bermudian palate, particularly at times of celebration; the hot-cross bun with a fish cake inside is another prime example.

Since cassava pie recipes can vary so much, we asked some well-known Bermudians to share their family favourite.

Ann Spencer-Arscott, director of the Bermuda Red Cross, has been supplying cassava pies to her wide circle of family and friends for several years. She uses the recipe passed on by her Danish mother, Else Maitland, who adapted recipes given to her by Bermudians when she first came to the island. Ann says she “took up the baton” of making the pie when her mother passed away. It was so popular with everyone who sampled it that she now has a customer list of some 70 to 80 people and takes two days off each November to make pies over a long weekend. The uncooked pies are frozen and ready to go in the oven on Christmas Day (she even supplies the frozen stock!).

Ingredients (Makes six 8”x8” pans)
1 ¼ lbs butter
3 cups sugar
15 eggs, beaten
1 ½ tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. vanilla
3 lbs. cassava
3 cups farina
5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken, cooked and cut up (not shredded)

Retain stock after cooking chicken
Cream the butter and sugar, then add eggs, salt, nutmeg, and vanilla. Beat well. Add cassava and farina. Beat well. Grease pans with Crisco or Pam. Line pan with cassava mix followed by the chicken pieces, chicken stock and the remainder of the cassava mix. Do not put a thick layer of the cassava mix on the bottom of the pan. Save more for the top layer. Cook at 325˚F for 2 ½ hours if using the small pans, longer for larger pans. Add chicken stock frequently. It is better to make ahead of time and freeze uncooked.

Bermudian Chef Fred Ming learned the art of making cassava pie from his mother, who did it the old-fashioned way, from scratch: “I remember having to scrape the cassava roots, then grate them and extract the milk to form the paste,” he says. His recipe, featured in his cookbook Bermudian Traditions, uses both cassava and farina. Like many cooks, he leaves the pork out these days, pointing out that many do not eat the meat for religious reasons.

Ingredients (serves 6)
½ lb. farina
1 ½ lbs. cassava
2 cups milk or chicken stock, more if mixture is dry
6 oz. sugar
8 oz. soft butter
4 oz. Crisco
6 eggs
Nutmeg to taste
Vanilla and lemon flavouring
2 ½ lbs. cooked chicken

Soak farina in milk or stock in which the chicken has been cooked, until all the granules are saturated. Mix well with the drained cassava, add the sugar and salt, soft butter and Crisco. Mix in thoroughly. Stir in the eggs until the batter is of a light consistency. Add grated nutmeg, vanilla and lemon flavouring to taste. Place some of the mixture in the bottom of a greased casserole, garnish the centre with the cooked, diced chicken and cover with the remainder of the mixture. Bake at 350˚F for approximately 2 ½ hours, basting frequently with the cooking liquid from the meat.

Dolly Pitcher is probably the most famous for her Cup Match mussel pies, but she is also an enthusiastic cassava-pie cook. Dolly learned her recipe from her father, Sidney Pitcher, who was also an excellent cook. “My daddy had my sister and I sitting there peeling and grating that cassava. No more! That’s too much hard work, I just buy it ready prepared now.” Her father would make the pie with meat for guests during the Christmas season, but for the family’s own Christmas dinner, a plain pie was served, as there was so much turkey and ham with the meal. “I never precook and freeze my pies, “ says Dolly. “I make it on the day because I like it freshly cooked and right out of the oven, just like my daddy made it.”

Ingredients (serves 12)
5 lbs. cassava (unsqueezed)
2 cups sugar
18 eggs
¾ lb. butter
Small handful of salt
1 ½ tsp. of lemon flavouring
Nutmeg to taste
4 lbs. mixed chicken and pork

Boil the chicken until it is coming off the bone. Season to taste with fresh thyme while cooking. Cool and cut into small pieces. Strain and save stock. Cook pork thoroughly. Mix up all the batter ingredients; keep whipping for a long, long time until really light. Put half the batter in the bottom of the pan and spread it up the sides. Put meat mixture in centre, with some stock. Spread the rest of the batter on top. Cook at 400˚F for about 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 300˚F and cook for about 3 ½ hours (depending on size of pan). Baste with the stock wile cooking. When a knife comes out clean, the pie is done.

Although Mayor of Hamilton, Charles Gosling, describes cassava pie as “a piece of cake with someone’s dinner stuck in the middle,” he is clearly very partial to this once-a-year specialty. His wife, Cathy, cooks the pie using Jane West’s recipe from the Junior Service League’s Bermudian Cookery. “It is not too sweet or overly aromatic,” says Charles. “It is that true cassava cake – savoury yet almost pound cake-like in sweetness.”

Ingredients (serves 12)
6 lbs. cassava
14 eggs
2 ½ cups butter (softened)
1 cup sugar
Fresh ground pepper
Powdered coves
4 lbs. chicken breasts and thighs

Boil chicken in a large pot with lots of seasoning; some carrots and celery will make the broth rich and savoury. Debone chicken and reserve broth. Mix unfrozen cassava (drained of its juices as much as possible), eggs and soft butter. Don’t try mixing with anything but your hands. Add sugar and a good pinch of all the spices and mix well. In a large, well-greased roasting pan, put in about 1 ½ inches of the cassava mixture. Add the chicken in an evenly distributed layer. Top with remaining cassava and prick with a fork. Then add about a cup of chicken broth and put in the oven at 350˚F for about two hours. Baste with chicken broth every half hour. The pie is done when a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.