Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reaganomics Redux: My search for a 'more perfect Union' through pumpkin pecan pie

Early in our marriage, when Rice-a-Roni Spanish Rice with hamburger crumbles was a key feature of my fancy dinner repertoire, I stumbled across a Thanskgiving recipe that seemed to combine the best of two worlds: creamy pumpkin pie and gooey pecan pie.

Unlike many Thanksgiving classics, the pie's pedigree was linked not to Plymouth Rock but to another icon of Americana, the White House kitchen. It was easy to assemble and the slices yielded gracefully from the pan, a grand visage of layered perfection and rich flavor that, sadly, has never been matched.

That's because it came from a newspaper clipping, and that little slip of paper apparently was pitched with the rest of our holiday detritus. After that one public glimpse, it seemed to have reverted to the classified White House files.

I continued hunting without success for its yellowed ghost in all the places I normally stash such things. Years later, after Al Gore invented the internet, I looked to see if it was floating somewhere in digital recipeland. But the internet just said no. Alas, we have made do with the more humble back-of-the-can pumpkin pie even since.

You can imagine my surprise when I threw caution to the wind again this year and optimistically typed the phrase White House Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pecan Pie into the browser. It instantly delivered a link to eBay for a recipe card signed by none other than Nancy Reagan. I was briefly horrified, but the math did seem to match. In my mind, I heard those immortal words: There you go again.

I checked with the menfolk to see if they wanted this for dessert - Graham was several years from becoming the pumpkin of our eyes at first bake - and, Reagonomics be damned, we all cast our vote in the affirmative.

The recipe is simple and calls for ingredients most bakers keep in their holiday kitchen. I don't normally use dark corn syrup but have a vintage jar of the light version of it on hand, so I substituted instead of buying a bottle of dark just for a half-cup of sticky sweetness.

It may not have been the right choice for Ronnie, but I used a store-bought crust. The ingredients lushly filled it to the brim. I carefully tucked it into a 350 degree oven and set the timer, as directed, for 40 minutes.

When the buzzer rang I returned to the kitchen to find my men - and a bonus man, a schoolmate of Graham's - who seemed drawn to the aroma as if by a cartoon hand and snake charmer's song. We opened the door with heady expectation, only to find it still extremely sloshly. "Bitch," I said, as a string of invectives poured forth at our frail former First Lady, who surely had nothing to do with the recipe other than autographing the card - which you still may be able to snag for a $5 bid.

I took another look at the recipe card. There it was, clear as day, a conditional codicil, the sort found in most all government contracts: "or until set."

I think I finally understand trickle-down math, at least as it applies to pie. It took slightly more than an hour until the filling, now inbued with the glossy sheen that high fructose corn syrup reliably provides, was done. The crust was golden and the aroma heavenly, kind of like a big jar of pumpkin and pecan pie Jelly Bellys. It cracked a bit as it cooled, but that little crevass opened a window into temptation that had to be hidden overnight in the back of the fridge.

I'm still not quite certain this is the same recipe I made years ago. I remember it in a honeymoon glow as having distinct layers - pumpkin on the bottom, topped by a slim but intense pecan goo on top. This is more like the love child of each, creamy and crunchy, sweet and substantial. It may not be that "more perfect Union" our forefathers described, but it is pretty damn good.

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