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Melissa said, “You have so much cooking to do for Thanksgiving, maybe we could get a pumpkin pie from the Rustic Inn…I mean, to save you some time.” I glared at her. She justified, “You’ve always said the Rustic Inn has the best pie on the North Shore.”
I reminded her, “I said they have the best pie of any restaurants on the North Shore. I’ll make my own pumpkin pie, thank you very much, ma’am!”
She tried to reason, “You could make an apple pie, and we could buy the pumpkin pie to save time.” I would hear no more of her nonsense and walked away.
I love baking all kinds of pie and I’m pretty good at it, but one pie has been giving me fits for as long as I can remember – the pumpkin pie. Not just any pumpkin pie, but specifically, Mom's - the recipe she gave me when I was putting together my first cookbook.
Mom had written across the top of the page, “Best Pumpkin Pie of All Time - It came from a friend in Glendive.” (The town I was born in so it has to be good.) Below was the recipe. I have tried for years to make this recipe and it never turns out. Melissa’s suggestion to purchase a pie this year, inspired me to try again. I knew I could get it right, before the kids came for Thanksgiving. Besides, Melissa might still be a little traumatized by my most recent attempt at making a pumpkin pie.
The last time I recall making a pumpkin pie was at our daughter’s house in North Carolina, six years ago. I was pleased with the pie. It looked and smelled good and the texture was okay. But when I tasted it? Well, I now call it “The Sugar Free Pumpkin Pie Incident.”
Without sugar, pumpkin pie is not delicious. As a matter of fact, it’s barely edible if you pinch your nose, swallow fast and chase it down with cold milk.
Still, I didn’t want to waste two pies, so to salvage them I scraped the baked filling from the crusts into a mixing bowl. I stirred in the forgotten sugar, mounded the recovered filling from both pies into one crust and tossed it back into the oven. The end result was a pumpkin pie flavored dessert with a texture similar to twice baked potatoes. Pumpkin pies have always given me trouble – especially Mom’s recipe.
With about ten days to Turkey Day, I had plenty of time. I made a couple pies using the recipe on the side of Libby's Pumpkin can. I made six different variations of this pie and begged people to take them. The pies were decent, but certainly not as good as I remember Mom’s being. I was ready to try her recipe again.
I took my old cookbook down from the cabinet over the stove. The blue three ring binder has a quilt pattern with lemons, garlic cloves, spices and tea kettles on the cover. The binding was tattered; nearly worn through. Over the years, my book has become frail.
I pulled out the recipe. The paper, discolored with age, has marks where it got splashed during previous attempts to make this pie.
I measured, mixed, stirred, blended and did everything just as the recipe called for. After baking for an hour, I poked a knife into the custard to see if it was done. Not even close. After two hours I checked again. Pulling the knife out, it was covered with sticky batter! “Why won’t this pie bake?” The resulting disaster was only worthy of the trash can.
“Why? Why can’t I make this stupid recipe work?” I compared the Libby’s recipe to Mom’s. The biggest difference was the milk. Libby’s called for condensed milk, where Mom used scalded milk. Researching online, I found a suggestion. I started over, this time adding cornstarch to the scalded milk. I produced yet another complete flop.
Defeated, I let the whole pie slide from the pan to the can. I think I heard Oscar the Grouch complain, “Come on buddy. I’m getting pretty full in here…how about a little variety? Something other than pumpkin?”
I looked at the recipe and came up with a thought. Was it possible Mom made an error? Maybe she wrote scalded milk, but meant condensed milk. I don’t mean to imply Mom would mislead me, but this was the same recipe where Mom wrote, in her own handwriting, “Buy 1 package Pillsbury Pie Crust in the dairy case – makes 2 pies.” My own mother, using a store-bought pie crust. The very thought makes me quiver!
I had an idea. I would use Mom’s recipe, replacing the scalded milk with condensed milk. There was no more time for experimenting. I would have to make and serve this pie no matter how it came out. I crossed my fingers and prayed for the best.
Opening the oven door, heat blasted my face. The metal rack quickly warmed the mitts on my hands as I pulled the rack forward; it felt good on a cold day. The pie looked good and smelled good. The moment of truth was at hand. I poked a table knife into the center of the pie and pulled it out. Perfectly clean! I might have nailed this, but would have to wait until the next day for the taste test. Hoping I remembered the sugar, I prayed, “Dear Lord, please let this pie turn out.”
Full of turkey, dressing, yams, potatoes and gravy, cranberry relish, green bean casserole and homemade dinner rolls, we waited a couple hours after our big dinner to cut into the pies.
Melissa cut into the pumpkin pie, putting a slice on her plate. She topped the wedge with Cool-Whip, cut another for Addison, then sat at the table. She cut a piece with her fork and tasted it. Her face lit up! “This is good.” She said, smiling, taking another bite. “Really good, Tom.” I felt relieved. After decades of failure with this recipe, I finally got it right.
Without much expression on her face, I could tell our granddaughter liked it by the way she devoured that pie. I took a slice for myself, cut it with the side of my fork and ate it. I thought to myself, this is good! The flavor, the texture; it was just like Mom’s pumpkin pie.
Looking at my old blue cookbook, still sitting on the counter to the right of the stove, I felt Mom’s presence. I could see her cutting a bite from the pie in the pan and tasting it. I could hear her saying, “You’ve done well, son.” Her round little body shook as she started laughing, “I can’t believe it took you all these years to figure out the milk.”
I leaned back against the kitchen counter holding my plate. As she took another bite, I said, “Oh yeah? Well I’m not the one who was using store-bought pie crust.” Mom and I would have shared a good laugh about that.
For a moment I felt removed, like I was standing outside in the snow with Mom, looking through the window at my family gathered around the kitchen table inside the warm house. They were content, eating my pumpkin pie, except Annie, she was having apple pie. Feeling Mom ever so present in my kitchen that day, brought me total peace. I was as carefree as the young boy to whom she handed a recipe to put in his first cookbook. I took another bite and looked toward the other counter. The pie and the cookbook were there. I couldn’t see her, but I could very much feel her spirit.
Missing her, a tear rolled down my cheek. I whispered, “Mom, this truly is the Best Pumpkin Pie of All Time.”