Tag Archives: baking

Somebody Has to Bake the Pie

In my last appointment before the holidays, my therapist and I talked about how this year would be different without my dad there. Big Gay does so much of Christmas for us, but there were a few things that belonged to Daddy alone.

Like we usually had one present that was just from him to each of us. For many years, it was Far Side desk calendars. Or it would be smell-good stuff from the drug store. Or fancy coffee. Or step ladders–that was a fun year.

Over the years, he bought a set of cranberry red Waterford champagne flutes, one or two at a time and we used them to drink a toast on Christmas Eve. The first year, when there were only two for Big Gay and him, he said, “I saw these and had to buy them because they were the only thing I ever saw that was almost as pretty as you.” Then we drank her health.

And he made the sweets, candies and cookies and especially pie. I think the pie phase started about fifteen years ago. He liked mincemeat–maybe the only person left in Georgia who ever liked mincemeat–so he had to learn to make it for himself. There were five or six kinds of pie at every holiday dinner.

When the pie phase held on long enough to become A Thing instead of a phase, Big Gay surprised Daddy one Christmas with a new Kitchenaid mixer. He was so excited that he kept it on the floor by his reading chair all day, so that he could “reach down and pet it.” Joe offered to make him a little wagon so he could drag it up and down the street and show it off to his friends.

Sometimes Christmas and pie led to strife. One year, I walked into the library and Daddy was sitting in his reading chair staring off into space. When I asked what was going on, he pulled a little face and said, “Mark said my pie crust might be better if I used half lard and half butter instead of all butter.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Can’t we have ONE HOLIDAY when you boys don’t argue about pastry?” (Mark is Little Gay’s husband, and in addition to being a neurosurgeon, mountain climber, and lawyer, he also took a year off to work as a pastry chef. I shit you not. And he’s pretty good-looking too. But he can’t dance, so there’s that.)

Whatever the ratio of butter to lard, Daddy always made a lattice-crust cherry pie for my sister-in-law, Beth. She got to take the whole pie (or whatever was left) home on Christmas Eve (and return the pie pan sometime in the summer or just buy him a new pie pan for Father’s Day). It was their special thing, a simple way that he showed her he loved her.

When I was telling my therapist about all these holiday traditions, it was the cherry pie that made me break down in tears. She told me that the plain truth is that if a tradition is important enough to the family, those who are left behind after a death have to decide to be responsible for carrying the tradition forward. Somebody’s got to quit being sad and bake the pie.

Mark would be the logical choice, right? I wasn’t exactly operating on logic when I set my heart on making a cherry pie for Beth.

I asked my friend Jo, who is a brilliant cake baker, for her pie crust recipe. She chuckled and said, “Pillsbury–the kind you roll out. It’s in the freezer section in a red box.” I filed that away… right next to my overblown intention to look up some Ina Garten or Gale Gand recipe for Pâte Brisée and learn how to make it from scratch. I was doing this task to uphold a cherished memory of my father–no shortcuts.

Except time got cut short. I meant to practice one weekend and forgot and then it was the day before Christmas Eve and I hadn’t even bought the Pillsbury pie crust in the red box. Dammit. All I had made was a shopping list when time ran out–I had to get myself to Griffin for the service to scatter Daddy’s ashes. For the second time in a few weeks, I started crying about that cherry pie. I had held it up as a moment of happiness, a moment of forward motion in this season of loss.

G took the list from me and promised that he would go to the store for the supplies.

Then when I told Big Gay about my plan, she opened up the kitchen drawer and gave me Daddy’s….wiggly pastry cutter thingy that you use to make the lattices for the crust.

I should have asked Mark what it was called, but he had lost the power of speech after I confessed I was using Pillsbury crusts. Even though his lips were pressed in a thin line at the thought of Poppin’ Fresh, he didn’t say a word to discourage me. He even handed me the wood-handled metal scraper thingy that you use to push flour around and said, “Every pastry chef needs a (insert technical term for scraper thingy).”

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

The next morning, I got up early to give it one good try. Vivi stirred the cherries and sugar and almond flavoring while they bubbled on the stove. Victoria washed up the pans. I cut lattices and patted butter and crossed my fingers. I remembered to put aluminum foil around the crust edges, just like Daddy did.

My favorite moment of baking that pie wasn’t later that night when Vivi showed it to Aunt Beth. My favorite moment was a few hours before that, when I tucked the pastry tools that had belonged to my father into my own kitchen drawer. When I decided that I will make a cherry pie every year in memory of my dad and his kind heart. He had a knack for knowing how to delight each of us in a simple and profound way.

It might take our whole family to get this pie right. That’s OK. My pies will only get better with Mark’s advice, Big Gay sharing the tools, G running to the store, and Vivi stirring the pot. It’s the same lesson that my therapist told me: if it’s important enough, the family will take up the responsibility for making sure it gets done.

It takes a family to make a family.

Even if that first cherry pie was a hot mess (I used the wrong kind of cherries so it wasn’t tart, way too sweet and the crust was merely serviceable) Beth texted today to say that she had eaten another piece for breakfast.



Aunt Beth and Vivi, Year One of the Cherry Pie


You Gotta Break a Few Eggs

My nemesis

My nemesis

It’s time for my annual humiliation–the night I attempt to bake a simple cream cheese pound cake for the big cake auction: The Thrilla In Vanilla. How hard could it be, you know? It only has six ingredients and a couple of steps. Courtney is making TWO cakes with ganache, chocolate mousse, chocolate curls. Jo has concocted a key lime cake and her famous burnt sugar caramel while also coaching softball. Anna just dropped off three loaves of challah, kosher for Rosh Hashannah.

And I’m giving myself a pep talk.

One year, I pulled the cake pan out of the oven and turned it upside down on the cooling rack. As I gently pulled the pan away from the cake, the entire golden crust stuck to the inside of the pan.


The instructions HAD mentioned that I should butter the pan, but I didn’t think a recipe that contained THREE STICKS of butter needed a buttered pan. I scraped the crispy crust from the pan with a spoon and contemplated just how wrong that idea had been.

The next year, I attempted to make this same cake. I buttered the tube pan then I buttered it again. Mixed up the ingredients exactly then baked it at 275 for two hours. I had gotten a late start so the cake wasn’t finished until after 11 p.m. I was about 27 months pregnant with Carlos that year and was out of my mind with fatigue. After I pulled the cake out of the oven, I thought about how my Grandmama Irene would let her tube pan cool on the neck of a bottle. I fetched an old bottle and set it on the kitchen counter. Verrrrry carefully, I turned the entire cake pan upside down and suspended it over the bottle.

In the 4 seconds that it took me to remember that upside down cooling was for angel food cakes so they didn’t collapse it was too late to save the pound cake.

Hanging upside down is definitely not for hot pound cakes.

In slow motion, I watched the pound cake slllliiiidde out of that heavily buttered pan and smash into a thousand nuggets on the countertop.

This was before cake pops, so there was no saving it. And since it was almost midnight and I was super pregnant, I stood there in the half-dark kitchen and ate my fill of shattered cake.

My favorite travesty with this cake happened the very first time I made it, back when Fartbuster and I were married. The recipe is from a family cookbook that Brett put together many years ago. I followed the recipe exactly. I’ll give you a second to put on your reading glasses and look up there at the recipe.  Does anything strike you as odd? I was new to baking, so I added just what the recipe called for–18 oz of cream cheese. Two solid blocks and a little bit of a third. Over a POUND of cream cheese. My poor little hand mixer was smoking by the time I got it blended together.

The cake smelled divine while it baked. I lifted it from the oven and inverted it onto a plate. I let it cool for a few hours and we grew giddy with anticipation at tasting my first homemade cake. When it was time for the tasting, the knife sliced through the crumbly golden crust but then it…got stuck. Like it had hit a dense core.

I pulled the knife out and tried again, with more of a sawing motion. We finally got a slice cut after a little effort. The center of that cake had so much congealed cream cheese in it that it was GRAY. It was a lot like eating PlayDoh, only not as salty.

A few weeks later, when I mentioned at a family dinner that I had made that cake, Big Gay said, “You know there’s a typo in the recipe, right? It’s supposed to be 8 ounces of cream cheese.”

I simply nodded and said, “Yeah, I figured that out.”

Like so much of life, every time I mess up this cake I learn something new. Let’s hope I get a little bit better with every try and ONE DAY…one sweet sweet day…I will get it right!

If you’re close to Athens, come by the Prince One Lobby at ARMC on Friday, Sept 19 from 8 a.m.-noon. We’ll be selling goodies and auctioning cakes for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society!

Sunday Sweetness–Baby Cakes

“Baby Cakes”–that’s what my nephew used to call cupcakes.  If you’d like to add a touch of sweetness to your Sunday, click this little cupcake to read my story, “Cupcake Moms.”  Enjoy!


The Light Gets Brighter With Every Year

Today is my birthday.  Just like any other Tuesday, it’s the best day of my life.


We’re gonna need a bigger cake.

When I was a kid, Grandmama Irene made my birthday cake each year.  She was famous for her cakes–even had a story in Georgia Magazine that dubbed her “The Cake Lady of Gay.”  Legend has it that she bought so many 50lb bags of sugar that the revenuers got a little suspicious and thought she might have a still going somewhere out in the woods!  

Some years I chose red velvet with the cream cheese and pecan frosting piled thick between three layers.  Other years, I asked for a lemon cheese cake with the glistening lemon frosting.  Those of you from other parts of the world may think I meant to say “lemon cheesecake,” but no, that’s something totally different.  A lemon cheese cake is a tower of three heavenly white cake layers filled and frosted with translucent and tart lemon curd.  There were a couple of years that I chose chocolate or caramel–buttery yellow layers cloaked in hard-cooked icing that got better as the days went by.  By the time I went to college, she opted for chocolate pound cakes because they traveled well.  

In my teenage years, my dad discovered that I loved coconut cakes as much as he did.  He set out to make me a coconut birthday cake.  Even though he’s a great cook, there was some kind of black cloud curse over the coconut cake baking process.  It got to be a running joke.  One year, he said he spent $45 on 3 different batches of frosting and it all still slid off the cake in a glop.  It was delicious anyway!  The next year, he nailed it with a coconut pound cake and avoided the subject of frosting altogether.  

But we all know how kids are, right?  Because I had been raised on astounding homemade cakes I yearned for a big old grocery store cake.  One with pink frosting roses and my name spelled in piping.  Maybe even some of those hard sugar princess castle decorations they sold at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong–I appreciated every morsel of the cakes Grandmama made for me.  But they didn’t look the cakes on TV.  And when you’re seven…y’know.  You think life is supposed to look like “The Facts of Life.”

I wished for candles.  Grandmama made cakes for birthdays, not birthday cakes, so they didn’t come with candles.  I really really really wanted candles.  I had some wishes I wanted to make. 

In my first year at Wesleyan, my friends surprised me with a cake–and it had candles on it.  I was so unfamiliar with the process that I caught my thumbnail on fire trying to light all eighteen tiny candles.  We had a great laugh and I got to make my wish.  I don’t remember what I wished for.  

Here’s what I learned from all those birthday cakes.  The real treasure, the greatest gifts, were those cakes made by people who love me.  Butter, sugar, eggs, time, patience, a light touch–alchemy that spins ordinary food into a celebration.  Birthdays are when a family looks back to celebrate the day that the family got bigger.  Eating cake reminds us of that sweetness.  The candles, though, the candles are for the future, for wishing and thinking about what is to come.  

I used every birthday candle from the age of about 28 to 37 to wish for a child.  As luck would have it, on my 38th birthday, I hosted a Leukemia Society chili party.  I was feeling really light-headed, had to go lie down, but I got my legs back under me in time for dessert.  My friend, Karen, remembered that it was my birthday and brought a butter cream dream of a cake.  We fired it up and I wished for a family of my own on those candles….and a few weeks later found out that my wish had already come true.  Vivi was there for my 39th birthday.  

That’s the thing about candles–and family–the light gets brighter with every year.  

Cupcake Moms

Sprinkle-cupcake-3Another baking story…a few years ago, my friend Mandy heard me say that I had never baked cupcakes.  Never! My grandmother was famous for cakes, but never cupcakes.  My mother is an incredible cook, but never went in for baking.  My dad bakes, but not cupcakes.  Cupcakes and me, our paths just didn’t cross that often. That year, for my birthday, Mandy sent me a full cupcake kit–pans, recipes, tiny frosting spatulas, paper liners, sprinkles.  I was delighted!  

I decided to try it out with my stepdaughter, who had just turned seven.  We started baking a batch of vanilla sprinkle cupcakes one Sunday night for her to share at school the next day.  As we battered and splattered, I said, “I’m really enjoying making cupcakes with you.  I never did this with my mom.”  She said, “Really?  Why not?”

I thought about it (and my new responsibilities as a parent) and answered, “Well, my mom worked and had three kids to take care of, so she really didn’t have time to make cupcakes.”  Then I worried that that made it sound like having a career takes all the fun out of life.  So I added, “There are all kinds of choices that women can make about what to do in life.  Some moms work and some moms stay home with kids.  Some moms do both.  Some moms are cupcake kind of moms and some aren’t.  The important thing to remember is that you can do whatever you want to do with your life!”  Well, that was a mouthful.  

She paused in mid-frosting and said, “My mom’s going to cure malaria.”

I laughed and said, “And when she does, you and I will make cupcakes to celebrate!”