My grandmother will turn 95 this June. How can I sum her up for those of you who haven’t met her? Last Mother’s Day, my aunt had brought her a beautiful cake, covered with lovely pink roses. We were taking pictures of Granny holding the cake. At one point, Granny joked that the cake was so pretty she could take a bite right out it. We laughed and said, “Go ahead!” So she did. She brought the cake to her mouth and took a big chunk right out of a rose. Even though we’d all told her to do it, we never thought she would. But we should have known. Granny does what she wants, when she wants. And she’s earned it.
When she was a child, her father was killed in the mines when her mother was pregnant with her little sister. She lived through the Great Depression, extremely poor. She was 51 before she lived in a house with air conditioning. She’d had four children before she lived in a house with an indoor bathroom.
When she was pregnant with her first baby, she lived in a house without indoor plumbing; she had to go down a flight of seventeen outdoor steps and across a street to get water at a nearby house. On her twenty-first birthday, when she was five months pregnant, she had a pot of beans on the stove and went out to get more water. She fell on the steps. She fell all the way down the hill. The pot of beans burned. The baby died the next day. She had to deliver the stillborn baby, her first delivery.
She would go on to have five children, three boys and two girls. Two of those were twin boys—both nine pounds at birth—and by the end of that pregnancy, she was so big she couldn’t reach the sink to do dishes.
Granny is strong, sweet, playful, resilient, stubborn, lively. She’s outlived her husband, her siblings, most of her friends. In her lifetime, we’ve discovered or invented penicillin, the atom bomb, the toaster, Band-Aids, insulin, frozen food, the traffic light, spiral-bound notebooks, television, bubble gum, radar, nylon. Not to mention the Internet. The iPhone. Blogs.
When I asked her which invention was her favorite, she said TV and the microwave. Of course, she went forever not using microwaves, and she doesn’t really need one now. My grandmother can cook anything. But she’s most famous for her pies. Her pie crusts are perfect, and she could make them blindfolded. (In fact, she hates her current glasses and can’t see well out of them. So, she was practically blindfolded when we made this pie. That didn’t hurt her one bit. Spoiler alert: the pie was amazing.)
Since it’s spring break, we’re getting some extra time to spend with family. Last night, we all gathered at Vicki’s house for taco lasagna (Vicki’s specialty) and salad. Granny, Mom, and I made a chocolate pie, and since we just got a new camera, Jesse decided to film it. Since we’re including the video here, I’m forced to confess: Granny made the pie. Mom helped and watched. And I mostly pestered Mom. It was a lovely evening, and a lovely pie, and a heck of a lot of fun to make. And to eat.
While we’re making confessions, I have to tell you the crust is made with Crisco. You should know that going into it. My mom, a very good cook herself, is also a health nut, a slow-food foodie, a person who buys almost all her food from local farms. She drinks raw milk, makes her own yogurt, bakes bread with flour from wheat she grinds herself. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t anything she likes less than Crisco. But, I told her we would make the pie the way Granny wanted it made, and so Crisco it was.
And, while I haven’t had Crisco in my house since…well, maybe since ever, I have to admit that this crust was perfect. Wonderful to work with and even better to eat. Flaky, light. So, Crisco. Crisco. Of all things.
Did I mention my grandmother is 94? Going on 95? And makes her pie crusts with Crisco.
That’s all I’m going to say about that.
Here’s the video. And below, the recipe.
- 2 c flour
- ¼ t (or a little less) salt
- 1 T sugar
- 2/3 c Crisco
- Ice water (6 T)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add shortening and mix with your hands until the lumps are the size of peas. Add ice water a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. Flour your work surface and gently roll out the crust. Put the crust in the pie pan, prick with a fork. Make the edges as cute as you can.
For the chocolate pie, bake the crust by itself in the oven. If you’re Granny, you can get away without using pie weights, but if it had been me by myself, I would have had to use dried beans or pie weights, because try as I might, I can’t get my crusts not to bubble up. Take the risks you feel are appropriate for you.
Bake until done, about 15-20 minutes. Check the crust until it’s nicely browned in spots. Let it cool slightly before filling it.
Chocolate filling and meringue:
- 2.5 ounces chocolate
- 1 ½ c milk
- ½ c sugar (we were supposed to add more, but it was plenty sweet the way it was)
- 3 T flour
- 1 T cornstarch or arrowroot powder
- ¼ t salt
- 3 egg yolks (save the egg whites for meringue)
- 1 T butter
- Vanilla (Granny said a teaspoon, but it looked like more to me)
Separate yolks and whites. Set aside the whites for meringue and beat the yolks. Set aside. Melt chocolate with the milk on medium heat, then let cool slightly. In a double boiler (or in a pot in another pot with boiling water) combine sugar, flour, and cornstarch; mix with a wooden spoon. Gradually blend in the chocolate milk. Whisk or stir until thickened. You’re looking for the consistency of pudding. Temper the egg yolks and combine with the chocolate mixture. Add vanilla and butter and continue to stir.
Make the meringue. Beat three egg whites until soft peaks form. Start adding the sugar a tablespoon at a time, while beating. It’s finished when six tablespoons of sugar are incorporated and the meringue has a pretty, shiny look.
Now, put it all together. Fill the piecrust with the chocolate filling and top with the meringue. Make sure the meringue covers all the chocolate filling. Pop the pie back in the oven until the top is nicely browned. (Again, do it the Granny way: just keep an eye on it, and when it looks good, get it out of there.)
Let the pie cool as long as you can stand it. We didn’t let it cool long enough, which meant it kind of went everywhere when we cut into it and ate it.
But life is short. So, eat the pie whenever you feel like it. Like Granny would.
And if you want to take a bite of the roses on the top of your Mother’s Day cake without sharing with anyone, go ahead and do that too.