“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I think I need this year to feel different. Because it is different.
For the first time Grandma won’t be the one bringing the pumpkin pie to the Thanksgiving table. She won’t walk through the door with a bag of Lay’s potato chips and her 9×13 glass Pyrex dish that houses a perfect pie. I won’t hear her insist the crust didn’t bake right or listen to her tell me how I could have done so much better. She’s wrong. Try as I might my pumpkin pie is never as good as Grandma’s even though I use her crust recipe; the one with no butter but lots of oil and a splash of milk. I even buy the can of Libby’s pumpkin pureé and follow the recipe off of the can because that is what Grandma does.
Did. I can’t seem to get used to that damn past tense.
This year is different. We knew someday it would be but what surprises me is that I’m finding myself wanting to lean into the difference. That was Grandma’s pumpkin pie and when I recreate it something is missing. Some recipes, perhaps, are best to live in memory. Maybe next year I’ll be ready to make her pie again but this year it still feels like it belongs to her.
The last time I saw her I held her hand and fingered her silver hair as she gasped her few final breaths. She was never very good at receiving praise so I took the opportunity I could to tell her how much I love her and how proud I am to be her granddaughter. She still felt like she was fighting. Her breathing, peaceful at times and then she’d dig deep for a breath. Wanting to release her I leaned in and whispered, “It’s okay Grandma, I’ll bake the pie now.”
It’s nearly Thanksgiving and while I want to honor that promise, making her pie feels like too great a task. I can’t bear for it to not be the same as it has been my entire life.
Last month, while in New Orleans, Joy and I spent a good bit of time flipping through the pages of the Sister Pie cookbook. Together she and I baked the Apple Pie with the Gruyere Crust but I took a quick photo on my phone of the Buttermilk Pumpkin Pie with the buckwheat streusel. The same day I made that beloved Collard Greens Melt I baked up this pie to see if it could be a possible contender for the holiday table.
It’s familiar, which for this holiday I do believe is essential, and yet different enough that I didn’t find myself comparing it to the one I’ve had for the last 36 years. There’s a subtle tang that intrigues and a warming crunch as you bite into the buttery spiced crumble. It’s a soft nod to tradition while gentling reminding us that life evolves. In our purest moments we are present because we know it won’t always be that way. We’re continuing to build new memories while still honoring those of the past.
Even if my pumpkin pie is not her’s I know she is still so very proud.
Sister Pie’s Buttermilk Pumpkin Streusel Pie
Yield 8 Servings
This recipe comes directly from the book. It’s a beauty. Loaded with inventive recipes and unique twists on the classes. Also, pie dough cookies!
1 recipe single crust pie dough (I’m partial to my latest recipe in Let’s Stay In or you could use this one)
Buckwheat Pepita Streusel Topping
1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄4 cup buckwheat flour
1⁄4 cup pepitas, toasted in a dry skillet
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, straight from the fridge
Pumpkin Pie Filling
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
3⁄4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons Grade B maple syrup
2 tablespoons (1⁄4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons fine yellow cornmeal
3⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg, beaten
Roll out your chilled pie dough into a large rough circle. Roll the dough around your rolling pin, then lay over your pie dough. Cut any excess dough off then fold in the edges and crimp the dough between your fingers. Place in the freezer and chill for 15 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 450°F with the rack on the lowest level. Remove the pie crust from the freezer, tear off a square of parchment that is slightly larger than the pie shell, and gently fit it into the frozen crust. Fill the crust with sugar (yes, sugar, this is a genius tip I learned from Stella Parks from Bravetart. Read more about it here.) and place the pie pan on a baking sheet. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake for 25 to 27 minutes. Check for doneness by peeling up a piece of parchment—the crimps should be light golden brown. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. After 6 minutes, carefully remove the foil and beans. You did it! You are now ready to fill the pie.
Preheat your oven to 325°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Make the streusel topping: In a mixing bowl, combine the all-purpose and buckwheat flours, pepitas, cinnamon, brown sugar, and salt. Place the butter in the bowl and coat on all sides with the flour mixture. Take a bench scraper and cut the butter into 1⁄2-inch cubes directly into the flour mixture in the bowl. Work to break up the cubes with your hands until they are lightly coated with the flour mixture. Continue to use the bench scraper to cut the cubes into smaller pieces—the idea is that you are cutting each cube in half.
Switch to a pastry blender and begin to cut in the butter with one hand while turning the bowl with the other. It’s important not to aim for the same spot at the bottom of the bowl with each movement, but to actually slice through butter every time. You’ll need to clean out the pastry blender every few turns of the bowl. Once most of the butter is incorporated, use your fingers to fully break down the butter until it is no longer visible. Be careful not to overwork the mixture at this point. Scatter the streusel over one of the parchment-lined baking sheets, distributing it evenly, and transfer the baking sheet to the oven. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, gently tossing the mixture with a spatula about halfway through. When the streusel is evenly browned and does not appear wet anymore, remove the baking sheet from the oven. Cool completely on a wire rack.
Make the filling: In a mixing bowl, combine the pumpkin, buttermilk, eggs, syrup, melted butter, cornmeal, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and ginger and whisk until well blended.
Place the blind-baked shell on the other parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the crimped edge with the beaten egg. Pour the buttermilk-pumpkin filling into the pie shell until it reaches the bottom of the crimps. Transfer the baking sheet with the pie on it to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the edges are puffed and the center jiggles only slightly when shaken.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer the pie to a wire rack. Let cool for 15 minutes, then cover the pie with the streusel topping. Allow the pie to fully cool and set for another 4 to 6 hours. When the pie is at room temperature, slice it into 6 to 8 pieces and serve.
Store leftover pie, well wrapped in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.