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Thanksgiving edition: Pumpkin pie fail

by Brian Clarey

To kill a king is regicide. Fratricide is what Cain did to Abel. One who commits suicide, of course, ends her own earthly existence. There is no word for what I did to those pies.

To merely say I burnt them would not expose the breadth of my ineptitude when it comes to baking. I did way more than burn those pies. I destroyed them.

The crime went down the night before Thanksgiving, a proper time, I figured, to put together a couple pumpkin pies. I generally do not bake — my wife has a much finer touch when it comes to patisserie — but my little girl asked me to make her one for Thanksgiving and it is not in me to deny such simple requests from such a sweet little kid.

The plan was to use a real pumpkin, but the blight on this year’s crop made them a scarcity, like nylons during World War II. I scored a couple cans of organic pumpkin instead, folded it in with some spices, a little vanilla, some eggs and a couple cans of sweet evaporated milk. For a little pop I added a bag and a half of walnuts and poured the mixture into two chocolate graham-cracker pie crusts. All well and good.

Here’s where I went wrong: A recipe on the side of the pumpkin can instructed the pies to go into a 425-degree oven for 20 minutes or so. It sounded a little high to me, but apparently I don’t quibble with things written on the sides of cans. Into the hot oven they went, while my wife and I gave the boys a hands-on seminar on the folly of trying to fill inside straights.

As the cards went around, the pies filled the house with a warm aroma, an autumnal redolence of spices, pumpkin, nuts, browning crust. It smelled very good.

And then it started smelling very bad. When the smoke cleared, I was left with a couple overly burned surfaces with goopy raw custard underneath.

My instinct to save the pies dictated my actions: I turned off the oven and let them finish off as it cooled down. And I tried to assure my baby girl that there would, indeed, be pumpkin on the morrow.

Thanksgiving day went well, the choreography of the kitchen playing out seamlessly and enough seats at the dinner table for everybody. I made my great-grandmother’s stuffed mushrooms, which were likely her greatgrandmother’s stuffed mushrooms. The recipe is simple:

Stuff mushroom caps with a mixture of browned Italian sausage, olive oil and seasoned breadcrumbs before baking off. With apologies to my noni, I have taken to adding a few cups of pureed mushrooms and garlic to the stuffing. People raised among the Italian side of my family generally count the mushrooms on the platter upon serving to determine their fair share.

And there was stuffing and gravy, of course, a yam casserole, cranberry sauce, potatoes, asparagus and stuffed peppers. And we had a bird, which may have been the easiest thing to cook on the whole menu.

And naturally there were family, friends and football, some high-quality couch time, maybe a few afternoon beers.

We pulled the pies out late; mine were dark and hard, looking prehistoric among the glazy and bright pecan pies next to them. I took a slice, mainly out of pride, and glopped on enough whipped cream to hide the abuse. My oldest son, who would eat a cube of sugar even if it had a dozen ants on it, was also game. Alas, my little girl opted for a slice of pecan pie.

But one should never underestimate a child’s capacity for sweetness, both her ability to take it in and dish it out.

“I guess I’ll try your pie, Daddy,” she said after finishing her first piece. I served it up and she took a bite.

Then she smiled at me.

“It’s not too bad!” Felt so good I didn’t care if she meant it or not.

A word of advice: Do not cook pumpkin pies at 450 degrees. But your kids just may eat them anyway. (photo by Brian Clarey)

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