More Than Just Dessert
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My mother, who hates to cook, generally spends very little time in the kitchen. But around the holidays, her attitude magically changes as she dusts off her rolling pin and preheats the oven. During the week before Thanksgiving and again as Christmas approaches, she devotes time and energy to baking the perfect homemade pumpkin pie. It’s an annual rite.
Her basic recipe comes from the label of a Libby’s pumpkin can, embellished with a few extra ingredients — among them molasses — on the advice of her mother (a fantastic cook). The resulting concoction is a spicier-than-usual custard-like filling that’s the standard by which my siblings and I judge other pies. The spiciness isn’t my mother’s only special touch. She lovingly decorates each pie with cookie-cutter autumn leaf or turkey shapes made with leftover scraps of dough.
When I married, I was eager to carry on my mother’s dessert tradition with my own family, but that idea got squelched when my oldest son, Kellen, was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. Turns out he’s allergic to the pie’s primary ingredients — wheat in the crust, and eggs and evaporated milk in the filling. During his first few holiday seasons, I struggled to sort out what menu items he could eat and didn’t worry much about dessert. But by the time he turned 3, I knew I needed to find an acceptable alternative to the family’s signature pie.
Luckily for Kellen, I inherited my grandmother’s love for cooking, which, combined with a penchant for research and a willingness to experiment, prompted me to take on a mission impossible: to find a wheat-free, dairy-free and egg-free recipe for pumpkin pie. As I combed through cookbooks and searched websites, I explained to Kellen what I was trying to accomplish. I’m not quite sure what he expected the treat to taste like, but he urged me on nonetheless. “Mommy, I just can’t wait to take a bite of that pumpkin pie,” he would say. As a connoisseur of my mother’s benchmark version, I hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed.
Several days before Thanksgiving, I narrowed down the choices, selecting a crust recipe from one cookbook and a filling recipe (which called for molasses!) from another. Anxiously, I mixed and rolled and stirred and poured and baked. Then I wrapped up the result for our trip, a three-hour drive to my parents’ home.
On Thanksgiving Day, after we’d had our fill of turkey and all the trimmings, the moment finally arrived. As I cut Kellen a slice of his pie, I sampled a sliver myself and was relieved to find that it was pretty tasty. I gave my mother a bite, too. She made a face and shook her head — fortunately out of Kellen’s line of vision. But none of that mattered the minute he put the first forkful in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed and happily declared, “This is the best pumpkin pie ever!”
As it turns out, my mother’s recipe and the one I cobbled together have at least three ingredients in common -- some pumpkin, a little molasses and a lot of love. This last item, a very important one, made this special pie so much more than just dessert for Kellen – and for me.
This essay was originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Living Without magazine.
For an allergy-friendly recipe for pumpkin pie, click here.