There are certain absolutes in my family : the women of it drink white wine. We will all make fun of you, mercilessly. Tom Brady is a living god. Our holidays are rowdier – and probably more fun – than yours. Our weddings are, too.
And our Granny rules all baked good creations.
Memories are quite literally (if you’ll forgive the pun) baked into some of her creations, which remain the same, year after year. They’re baked on the same battered tins and sheets, too – a fact that drives my mom crazy.
Nut roll and Hungarian wreath cookies are Christmas staples. Her frosted cupcakes – which she swears are a “back of the box recipe” I’ve never been able to replicate – were birthday staples growing up. Her chocolate chip cookies are stuff of family legend, with my mom going so far as to lay claim to Granny’s original baking sheets and measuring cups, believing the true secret to their perfection is baked into the cookware.
And then there are the Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.
How do I even begin to describe those? Crusts and filling made from scratch, at turns buttery and pillowy, I’ve never – never – had a better pie than Granny’s. They’re Thanksgiving staples, known to cause fights over who gets to smuggle the most leftovers home after dinner. They’re the pies upon which I will judge all other pies, and this year I asked Granny if we could make them together. I wanted to see the magic for myself.
Granny is a special lady. She’s 92, goes to church daily and is always immaculately dressed, from earrings and lipstick to matching scarf and shoes. I’ve never seen her in anything that could remotely resemble sweats. She’s both practical and ladylike. It stands to reason, then that her pie recipe would be the same.
The magic didn’t come in the actual recipe. That was pretty straightforward: flour-based pie crust, pumpkin, butter, sugar and spices in the filling (you didn’t think I’d actually give you her secret, did you?). The magic came in making it together.
When it came time to roll out the crust, out of nowhere in her small kitchen, Granny produced one of the largest wooden cutting boards I’d ever seen. Turns out, it was a pastry board – and it had quite the story behind it.
When my grandfather was an Irish bachelor living in Boston, he frequented the same pub “for dinner” every night (Granny says no drinking went on. I challenge you to challenge her). There, he met another Irish bachelor named, appropriately, Old Jim. According to Granny’s version of the events, Old Jim wasn’t much of a talker – which played well with Gramp, since he wasn’t either. So each night, until Granny and Grampy married, Old Jim and Gramp had dinner together. In near silence. And when Old Jim found out Grampy was to get married, he went to the woods, cut down a tree, and made the pastry board.
It’s an incredible story, the kind that gets passed down in a family from generation to generation. And yet, incredibly, no one in my family had heard it until Granny told it to me.
That’s the beauty in gathering together in a kitchen – memories are created in the food and in the conversation shared. And it makes me marvel at this woman, who grew up through the Great Depression, married an Irish bachelor and moved to Boston from Cleveland to be with him, not knowing another soul, raised six children, faithfully went to church… and can still surprise one of her eighteen grandchildren as they roll out pie dough together.
This Christmas, after we’d made the pies, Gran wrapped up two baking sheets and a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine for me. Tucked in with the gift was a little note, in her perfect penmanship, telling me that the baking torch was passed.
It’s one I’m not quite sure I’m ready to assume yet. I’ve still got secrets to learn, frosting to taste-test, cookies where I need to uncover the butter-to-sugar ratio – and something tells me Gran still has stories to share as we crack eggs and whip some batter.
I’m excited to discover my own go-to recipes in the magazine’s pages, to make my own memories from serving friends a blueberry corn-muffin crisp, or grilling paella in the back yard for visiting guests. But every time I do so, I’ll know I learned from the best – about food, about using it to feed the people you love, and about staying quietly true to yourself and your kitchen through the ups and downs of life.
The above is as delicious as it looks - imagine blueberry pie meeting buttery corn muffins. Delicious! I think it's destined to become one of my staple dishes. Recipe (so very easy) is this way.