My family always prepared for the Thanksgiving or Christmas feasts the day before. They ironed the good tablecloth, polished the silverware, and took the crystal and china out of the antique oak china cabinet. To accommodate family and friends, we added leaves to the round dining-room table.
In the kitchen, my grandfather and mother chopped pecans for the pie, and onions and celery for the corn bread dressing. They were the cooks in our family, and I spent countless hours in the kitchen with them as a child and an adult, helping and observing.
We were traditionalists; only the tried-and-true classics graced our table. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, we always had a roast turkey, pans of corn bread dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes and my favorite holiday potato dish, new potatoes covered in a white béchamel sauce. The bread of choice was always Pillsbury crescent dinner rolls, which I rolled up and baked, and I always spooned the cranberry sauce into a bowl, along with a little tray of pickles and olives. My grandmother's contribution, the only dish she ever made, was ambrosia. The dish is a blend of mandarin orange slices, cherries and marshmallows sprinkled with white coconut flakes.
No holiday meal would have been complete without one of my grandfather's famous pies. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was pecan pie, and at Easter, it was always lemon meringue. He was also famous for his chocolate and coconut meringue pies. He made everything from scratch, from the light, flaky crust and creamy filling to the fluffy meringue.
I don't know where my grandfather learned to cook, but he was always the top chef in our family. He was quite the confectioner, too, whipping up batches of divinity, fudge and pralines in the kitchen at night after a long day at work as an electrician. I loved helping him chop pecans and boil the gooey sugar mixture until it got to the right candy stage. I would help him spread the fudge or divinity on a buttered pan, or spoon the pralines into pecan-studded puddles on a piece of waxed paper. When the candy set and cooled, we'd cut the fudge or divinity into squares or pull the pralines off the waxed paper and stack them on a plate. The delicious candy didn't last long.
My mother was also a terrific cook, and she and Grandpa would alternate cooking a big Sunday dinner. She never made candy like he did, but she made wonderful savory dishes like stuffed bell peppers and Swiss steak with homemade mashed potatoes that I would give anything to taste one more time.
With the deaths of my grandmother in 1996, my grandfather in 2002 and of my mother eight months later in 2003, it's been hard trying to perfectly recreate those Sunday and holiday dinners. The dishes I cook never seem to taste as good as the ones Mom and Grandpa cooked. I finally figured out the missing ingredient, the one that made everything they cooked taste so delicious.
It was love.
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup shortening
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix shortening, flour and salt in a large bowl. Use pastry blender or knives and mix flour and shortening together until it is about the size of peas. Add water and mix until it forms dough and roll out on a floured board. Place the dough into a pie pan and top with filling.
Pecan Pie Filling
1 cup light brown sugar
1-1/2 cups white corn syrup
1/2 cup butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cook brown sugar and corn syrup in a pot on the stove slowly, for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat.
Beat eggs and add slowly to hot mixture, stirring constantly and being careful not to cook eggs. Add butter, salt and nuts. Pour into the pan lined with unbaked pie crust and place on cookie sheet. Bake 15 minutes. Reset oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake 25 to 30 minutes.
Lemon Meringue Filling
1-1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1-1/2 cup boiling water
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1-1/2 tablespoon grated lemon rind
3 eggs, separated
Pinch of cream of tartar
2 tablespoons sugar
Mix sugar and cornstarch together in top of a double boiler. Blend in the boiling water. Cook the mixture over direct heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens and boils. Add water into the bottom of the double boiler and set the top boiler over into the double boiler. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
Beat egg yolks slightly, and then blend some of the thickened mixture to temper the eggs. Blend the egg mixture into the rest of the cornstarch mixture in the double boiler. Add in butter and lemon juice, and then remove from the boiling water and cool. After it has cooled, put the boiler back on the heat and cook two minutes, stirring constantly.
For meringue, beat eggs whites, cream of tartar and sugar until stiff peaks form.
Pour the hot filling into the pan lined with unbaked pie crust, and top it with meringue. Bake at 375 degrees until peaks brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Cool completely before slicing and serving.
Lovely. Thanks for the memories and the recipes.