We walked among the dilapidated foundations in the forest, the remnants of buildings that had burnt to the ground years before. I was small, and my brother even smaller, so we moved slowly. My grandparents led. In the woods, we sat on the edge of cinder-crusted stones, where we could see ancient logs and overgrown paths. We traced the outline of what was once a swimming pool with our fingers in the air, and then threw rocks into the nearby stream.
“It used to be great,” said my grandmother, who stood there in her fur-lined coat, with her shock of red hair. To me, she always seemed sad.
It was a few days after Thanksgiving. That’s when we always went to “The Hotel,” the small Catskills resort owned by my great-grandparents, the one where my grandmother grew up. After all, we were already at my grandparent’s house upstate for the holiday, and the remnants of my grandmother’s past were only an hour away. There wasn’t much left.
These trips to the woods confused me. I didn’t understand how empty foundations and slapdash piles of rock could mean anything, really. But there were still moments of magic: the brittle leaves crunching under foot, the scent of wet soil on my shoes. I loved the rustling branches, the splintered light through the trees. Once my grandfather fashioned me a walking stick out of a small fallen limb. He carved my name into its flesh with a pocketknife. I kept it stored in my bedroom closet for years.
On our way home from “The Hotel” we stopped at the cemetery and stood in front of my great-grandparent’s graves. Bertha and Hymie, their names chiseled in stone. My parents wanted my brother and me to understand the path of our family, and the depth of the past. But we were too focused on finding the biggest, smoothest stones to place on top of the graves.
When we got home, we ate chocolate cake. It was leftover from my birthday, which always falls within days of Thanksgiving. I wasn’t a fan of celebrating my birthday around the holiday then. The attention at the dinner table made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like blowing out the candles while everyone watched. I especially hated not having a choice. I always wanted a piece of pie.
This year, the day after Thanksgiving, I visited my grandmother at a nursing home here in Boston. She is almost 92, and fading fast. I drove there with my brother, following my father in his car. We traveled in the blinding afternoon light, speeding down the Tobin Bridge toward Charlestown. I was tired and cranky. All I wanted was a nap.
When we walked in to the nursing home, we were greeted with the scent of old. Old people, old clothes, old food. I felt immediately uneasy and breathed through my mouth as we took the elevator up to the fourth floor and walked through a living space, a kitchen, and into my grandmother’s bedroom. She moved here from the house in upstate New York where she had lived for more than thirty years just this summer. She’s still adjusting to the change.
These days, my grandmother is lucid. But she’s also lost. On this visit, she told me about the job she just began at Macy’s, greeting shoppers and picking out their clothes. She is paid two hundred dollars a week, she told me, and therefore just purchased her own condo back in New York. Sometimes, she said, my grandfather comes up from Florida to visit.
I listened. I nodded. And as I did, I felt simultaneously old and very young. My grandmother had a stroke more than a decade ago. She can no longer walk, or use her left arm. My grandfather, she often forgets, died in 2008. I hope that when I reach 90, my imagination will remain just as strong.
When we got home later that afternoon, I was hungry. For Thanksgiving, I had baked a pumpkin pie, a pecan pie, and a chocolate cake. This chocolate cake, like my grandmothers, was for my birthday. The night before we had stuck candles in it and sang. I’m 28 years old now. And I choose pie.
In the original recipe, this pie is baked into what looks like a magical tower in a 10-inch spring-form pan. I used a regular pie plate. Therefore, I adjusted accordingly. Also, never a fan of booze-laden desserts, I left out the rye. The recipe below is my interpretation. It's very good.
2 ½ cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar
½ pound cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
½ cup ice water, more as needed
About 5 cups dried beans (for baking), or pie weights
1 ¼ cups light brown sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup molasses, dark or unsulfured
1/3 cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups finely chopped pecans
2 ½ cups pecan halves
Make the crust: In a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine flour, salt and white sugar at low speed. Add butter and mix until pea-size lumps form. Raise the speed to medium-low and add ½ cup ice water in a slow, steady stream, mixing just until dough holds together. To test, pinch a small amount of dough. If it is crumbly, add more ice water, one tablespoon at a time. Shape dough into a ball and wrap it loosely in plastic, then roll it into a disk. Refrigerate at least one hour, or up to 3 days, before rolling. (Dough can be frozen for up to a month.)
On a lightly floured surface, roll chilled dough into a circle just a few inches larger than the diameter of your pie plate. Lift it and let it settle into pan, fitting the dough down into the edges. Trim the excess dough hanging over the rim with kitchen scissors so that it hangs over by one inch. Fold or pinch in the excess to create a neat border. Use the prongs of a fork to make indents and seal it all in place. Refrigerate in pan until very cold and firm, at least 45 minutes.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Prick bottom of dough with a fork. Lay a piece of parchment or wax paper in pan, then a piece of aluminum foil. Fill foil lining with dried beans or pie weights to top of pan. Bake 15 minutes, until the sides of the crust have set and turned a very light golden brown. Remove from oven and lift out the beans or weights, foil and parchment. Bake 10 - 15 minutes more, until also a light golden brown. Let cool at least 30 minutes before filling.
Fill the pie: Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar, melted butter, molasses, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt. Place baked pie shell on a sheet pan. Gently pour in the filling. Sprinkle chopped pecans evenly over surface. Working from outside in, arrange pecan halves in concentric circles, without overlapping, until entire surface is covered. (Use only as many as needed.)
Bake 50 to 60 minutes, just until filling is firm and a wooden skewer comes out clean when inserted into center. (If the overhanging crust becomes too dark, take a sheet of aluminum foil and wrap it around the edges of the pie to prevent further browning.) Let cool completely.
Best served warm, with whipped cream.