Soon after we married, I baked a batch of what in our family was a Christmas cookie, to be baked and enjoyed only once a year. Though I followed the recipe, words did not steer me clear of a mixing pitfall that produced a cookie hard as granite, suitable as a unique paving stone for artsy landscapers.
My culinary skills range from Nifty Can-opener through Blackjack Dealer (cheese slices shuffled with a loaf of sliced bread) to Cajun. Cajun comprises anything stirred in a frying pan that peaks just shy of summoning firefighters. Before Cajun became trendy, anything burned to a crisp we labelled burned. Calling my cinders Cajun elevated my disasters, though they still threatened bridgework. Not until my daughters grew up did they discover boiled pasta should sag not splinter, and other moms depend on timers, not smoke alarms, to alert them when pastries are baked.
So you can understand the skittishness of family if, when I ask, “Are you coming to visit?” they counter, “What do you have to eat?” Peanut butter and popcorn are standbys.
Over the years I’ve encouraged family to be honest when I present a new dish and tell me what they think about it without fear of ruffling my pride. If they would prefer I never serve the dish again, say so. Unlike my tactful dad who pretended to like something when he really didn’t.
When Dad became a widower, he lived two doors from an 80-year-old widow who harboured an urge to bake though she no longer had family nearby to share her output. When she presented Dad with her first plate of walnut cookies, he made the mistake of declaring how much he liked walnuts.
While he did indeed love walnuts, he could no longer chew them. He had only two teeth remaining, the ones that gripped his pipe stem. Rather than hurt the old lady’s feelings, he continued to accept successive offerings with feigned delight until one of his kitchen cupboards bulged with her walnut cookies.
Last Sunday a craving for flapper pie, that prairie standby of vanilla custard atop a graham cracker crust, led me to dig out a recipe I had clipped from “The Western Producer” years ago. The yellowed clipping bore my shorthand notation giving the date of my previous attempt as September 4, 2003. Too long for me to recall the intricacies of preparing the filling, and the Producer, with its solid following of experienced country cooks, offered sketchy mixing instructions, too sketchy at least for me, as my pie filling proved.
Experienced cooks know that you must first cook the milk and cornstarch mixture in a double boiler, separately beat the eggs, stir a few spoonfuls of hot milk mixture into the eggs then add the eggs to the hot milk and cook a minute or two longer stirring to combine them into a smooth custard.
That wasn’t how I mixed my filling.
My custard tasted as I remembered Mom’s did but was pocked with tiny lumps like ingrown whiskers. Cooked lumps, but still lumps. Only then did the proper sequence come back to me.
I made no effort to crown my pie with a meringue topping; I know my limitations. Aunt Mil would top her flapper pies with perfect meringue. Mom avoided adding meringue sparing herself needless grief.
Meringues may choose to “weep”, burn, fall short of the perfect golden glow, or skate right off the custard. I prefer custard unadorned by meringue or fruit.
One family critic says, “I don’t see the point to meringue. Tastes odd, has a strange texture and adds nothing but calories.”
Amen to that.