I confess, I still have Thanksgiving on my mind, even though my Christmas decorations are now up and my husband and I have entered our annual stalemate regarding outdoor lights.
Let me explain. I love them with my whole heart. He enjoys looking at them but loathes putting them up. I’ve learned that I must not mention Christmas lights at all until about the second week of December, otherwise he feels badgered and will resist hanging them until midafternoon Dec. 23. Ah, the delicate dance of marriage!
But back to food. Specifically, pecan pie.
Pecan pie was my mother’s favorite. That was always her choice at Thanksgiving. While the rest of us were in the kitchen dithering over which pies to sample and whether to have ice cream or whipped cream, she cut herself exactly an eighth of a pecan pie and quietly finished the whole slice before we’d even returned to our seats.
I found a few recipes for pecan pie in my mom’s old recipe box, but the one I set aside months ago is “Kayte’s Pecan Bourbon Pie.” Mom didn’t get this recipe from a friend or clip it from a magazine. This recipe is all her own, from start to finish, including her endearing way of referring to old-fashioned oats as “old fashion.”
Which leads me to the second reason I wanted to make this recipe: It includes rolled oats in the crust as well as the filling. It bakes up kind of like a pecan crumble. The shortbread crust is buttery and a little difficult to cut, but tender in the mouth. The filling is rich and nutty, with a bit of chew from the oats and a toasty flavor from the bourbon. (Mom allowed that vanilla can be used in place of bourbon.)
I approach any recipe with a certain degree of slapdash irreverence. I make substitutions left and right, change amounts, add spices, omit steps that I deem too troublesome or leave out ingredients altogether. This time, however, I wanted to do everything exactly as Mom wrote down in her wobbly all-caps penmanship. I wanted, I suppose, to make her proud.
What I didn’t expect was how sharply I’d miss her as I was assembling the ingredients, fluffing the butter and sugar, and measuring out pecan pieces. I’m not really a crier — I rarely tear up during sad movies when my husband and daughter are reaching for the tissues — but making this pie filled me with helpless longing. I wanted to call her up and say, “Hey Mom! Guess what? I’m making your Pecan Bourbon Pie!” And she’d say, “I can’t wait to taste it, sweetie!”
The thing about grief, though, is it’s a sneaky beast and it gets you in places you never knew you were vulnerable. I had a difficult, somewhat adversarial and often painful relationship with my mother, but her death in 2012 tossed me into such a dark pit of depression that it took me about four years to crawl out of it.
A friend expressed surprise that I should grieve so deeply over a person who so thoroughly exasperated me, and I thought, “That’s just it. There are no more chances to get it right, to apologize, to forgive and to understand.”
I grieved not so much for a lost closeness with my mother but for the opportunity to become close with her in the future.
That’s what cuts the deepest: Now that I feel the most compassion for my mother’s struggles and the most gratitude for everything she gave me — her love but also the million small and large sacrifices she made for me — well, dang it all to heck, I can’t tell her.
I can, however, make her pie, and you can, too. This uncomplicated dessert can grace your Christmas table or it can offer sweet comfort during the cold, dark weeks between now and Dec. 25. Pie is always appropriate, no matter what the occasion, even if it’s just breakfast on Tuesday.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat ½ cup butter and ¼ cup sugar until fluffy. Stir in 1 cup flour and ¾ cup “old fashion” rolled oats until mixture is soft and crumbly. Press into bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until edges begin to turn golden. Let the crust come to room temperature.
For the filling, mix 2 large eggs, ½ cup light corn syrup, 2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar, ¼ cup (half a stick) of butter and 3 tablespoons bourbon or vanilla. Beat with a hand mixer until well combined, then stir in 1½ cups pecan pieces and 2/3 cup rolled oats. Pour the filling into the crust and decorate with pecan halves — just a few or a whole bunch, as the mood takes you. (I couldn’t find pecan halves at the market because they were all sold out, but I bought a can of mixed nuts and fished out eight salty pecan halves.) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until set. Let cool completely. Cut yourself exactly one-eighth of the pie and eat it quietly before anyone notices it’s missing.