Monday, June 14, 2010

First cooking memory: Chocolate Meringue Pie

711 E. 17th St., Little Rock, Arkansas.

1964. Summer.

I wasn't tall enough to stand over the cooktop and stir the filling. My perspective on Nanny's pie-making was this: if I circled around, at eye level we would have the bottom of the iron skillet resting on the grate, the blue flame underneath, the yellow formica with the boomerangs. Then the bottom of Nanny's arm, her thinned-out skin sagging and undulating with the stir of the spoon. Then the tie of her apron. Behind me the open window--waves of heat washing in on the breeze--and around to the icebox, and continuing to the doorway into the living room, and finally back over the counter to the stirring and the black iron, steam rising now as the sugar and cocoa and flour and milk and a pinch of salt started to cook.

My boy cousins giggling and shrieking as they ran around and around the house, in and out of the bushes. Long, low cars passing the house, indolent, men with one arm on the steering wheel and the other stretched along the back of the passenger seat. KALO, souuuuuuuuul radio, approaching and fading with the cars.

I wanted to make that pie, and knew I could, if only I could reach it.

Nanny brought over the stepstool. It, too, was yellow, its seat a padded vinyl, and its steps ridged rubber treads. Its legs were chrome, and usually I sat on the seat as I watched her, but this time was different. She steadied me on the bottom step and walked me through: into a clean skillet went the dry ingredients (what I didn't spill on the floor). As I teetered on the step, she fetched the milk out of the icebox and a measuring cup. She poured the milk in and told me to yell "stop" when it reached that line right there, and I did. I stirred as she poured the milk in the skillet and she showed me how to keep the mixture moving along the bottom, and what it looked like when it was thick enough to take off the heat.

"It's like Moses parting the Red Sea, see there? See how the river parts and lets the Israelites cross?"

She showed me how to separate eggs, and didn't say a word when it took 7 or 8 to get the 3 clean whites and yolks into the two bowls. I beat the yolks with a fork, and spooned a bit of the hot chocolate mixture into them at her prompting (Nanny didn't use the word "temper"--I doubt if she'd ever heard it), and put them back into the skillet, my young arm already tiring from the endless stirring.  She didn't grab the spoon away when the first bubble boiled up, and stayed calm as she told me to turn the fire off.

Then the butter and vanilla, and stir, stir, stir, until that knob of butter finished its spiral trail and was all gone.

Looking back now, I'm sure Nanny must have hoisted the skillet on and off the heat and managed the flame surreptitiously, but I only recall feeling very sovereign.  I do remember her holding the skillet over the baked pie shell as I clumsily scooped (most of) the filling in, but even then she adopted the stance of handmaiden.  We beat the meringue together and spread and sculpted it on top of the chocolate filling. I wonder if she had to bite her lip to allow such a disheveled set of cowlicks and spikes to abide on the top of that pie. She didn't act like it.

A quick goldening in the oven and there it was.

My first one.

There was no fawning and cooing, no badge or ribbon.  Baking a pie in Arkansas in 1964 was just what girls learned. It was like making a bed with hospital corners or knowing how to dry your own back with a towel.

But the celebration was there nonetheless. The washing and sewing were postponed. Eggs were wasted. An extra chocolate pie was made on that day, when normally she would have made one chocolate and one lemon.

She tied the apron around me, just as solemnly as she would have set a crown on my head.

I had made my first pie.

Nanny deemed it good. I hope you like it, too.

Southern-Style Chocolate Meringue Pie

4 T. flour
Pinch salt
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. cocoa
2 c. milk (start with a small can of evaporated milk, top off with whole milk to make 2 c.)*
3 eggs, separated
1 T. vanilla
3 T. salted butter (Nanny used salted; I use unsalted, but add a bigger pinch of salt to the dry ingredients)
5 T. sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar, optional

1 pre-baked pie shell (use your favorite recipe)

In an iron skillet, blend together the dry ingredients, mashing with fork to eliminate clumps of cocoa. Turn heat to medium and add milk, stirring constantly until thick enough that the spoon leaves a trail at the bottom of the skillet. Remove from flame. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add 2-3 tablespoons or so, one at a time, of the hot chocolate mixture, beating well. Return skillet to flame and add the egg yolks, stirring quickly and thoroughly to incorporate and avoid scrambling or curdling. Cook, still stirring, until quite thick. Remove from heat and add vanilla and butter. Stir until the butter is melted and blended in. Set aside to cool slightly (about 10 minutes) before pouring into pre-baked pie shell. Spread evenly and top with meringue, spreading that to cover the filling completely (you should have a seal between meringue and crust—it will shrink away slightly when it’s baked, and you don’t want the filling exposed). Bake in a 400 degree oven for 4-5 minutes, watching closely, until the meringue peaks are golden.

Meringue: beat the egg whites until very foamy. While still beating, gradually add 5 T. sugar (and cream of tartar, if using) continue to beat until the meringue holds soft peaks, but is not dry.

*When I make this pie these days, I often just use 2 c. of half-n-half, or if I’m REALLY feeling brazen, cream. Nanny would have used plain old Hershey’s cocoa, but the better cocoas really elevate the flavor. Same with vanilla. Also, this filling makes a great warm chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream, if you don’t have time to make a pie crust.


Lorna Yee said...

As always, excellent writing. I feel as if I'm almost there in the kitchen with you and Nanny.

And now I want a chocolate cream pie.

Stephanie (Fresh Tart) said...

Delicious memory! Makes my miss my grandma's soft, saggy arm. Thanks for sharing.

Tara said...

Oh, I loved this! Especially your description of your Nanny's loving patience. My own Nanny treated us grandkids similarly. Thank you for sharing. Wish I'd had the recipe last week, when my southern mother-in-law was here!

Cheryl Rainey said...

Loved this....I drove by that house not six months ago when I was down at the Arts Center one day...and remembered the day all us cousins got in trouble for something and Nanny made us go pick out our own switches...THAT was worse than the whip on the legs we got!

Jenifer said...

Thanks, all! And Cheryl, I have blocked all memories of getting a switching from Nanny. I do remember having to cut my own switch to be swatted by Papaw and Daddy Gene, though.

Lisa said...

Great read, Jenifer. I made Mother's Lemon Chess Pie yesterday. It took me back home, as I am sure baking sweet concoctions does you...

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