Actual Baking in Baking By Death

Here’s some stuff about baking and Thanksgiving because I’m soft-hearted.

My grandmother’s sweet potato pies were perfect. Consistent. The kind that sold out at the church bake sale and that my family, bless our dark, selfish little hearts, fought over like cats and dogs. 

My mother once bought two pies home from church and hid them in the freezer for later. My sister crept downstairs one night and went to town. My mother was livid, and so was I. She because her pies were eaten, me because my sister beat me to the punch. I was going to sneak down in the morning.

Yes, I was a fucking amateur. 

That incident lived in infamy. Both my brothers, who were not home at the time, had to hear about it in excruciating detail. They complained, but again, this was mostly due to having not had a chance to steal the pies themselves.

My father had a better system than all of us. He volunteered in the church kitchen frying chicken or basting ribs and got his pie straight from the source, sliced and served to him on a break (my grandmother was from an era when women fretted over men having enough to eat). He never had to share, and so, when arguments about pie broke out, he could pretend (very smugly) to be above it all. Heathens, his look said, all the while knowing his belly was already full of pie.  

Baking By Death is murder on the outside with a warm squishy middle. 

My mother’s pies were perfect too. She had the patience for it and the benefit of years of knowledge about actually baking things. I was a wayward child who believed her oven was better suited to shoe storage until well into my adult years. By then, I realized that being in the kitchen with my mother was never about baking (or patriarchy, as I was fond of declaring). It was about connecting, turning a conversation into muscle memory as you kneaded the dough and measured out the molasses.

My mother died of breast cancer when I was 25. It metastasized to her bones just as the adult version of our relationship was metastasizing to mine. You know—that indescribable moment in time when your parents become people, and you actually want to be caught in public with them. That’s when I first starting trying to make my grandmother’s pie. Armed with wine and longing, I imagined my mother was a spirit in the kitchen, guiding me to create the perfect pie crust from the great beyond. 

And I needed that spirit. 

My grandmother never wrote any of it down. Her recipe remains part myth and part rumor. I’ve experimented with a million incarnations of this pie, trying to get the flavor just right. I’ve spent hours in the kitchen chilling butter, adding a splash of vodka, boiling potatoes, and cursing the sheer madness of trying to make a pie from scratch.

I love you, grandma, but seriously, what the fuck?

Anyway, it goes without saying that my pies are not as pretty. My mother is long since gone, my grandparents and father too. My siblings and I have found great joy in putting together a version of a Thanksgiving dinner that imitates their many recipes. It helps that two of us have partners that can actually cook. We laugh about the memories—my father frying catfish in a lab coat, my mother dusting Russian tea cakes with powdered sugar and smacking away our hands, my grandmother standing by the bake sale table watching as folks snatched up her pies. 

I thought I chose a baking contest as the center of this story because I liked the Great British Baking Show and reality tv. That’s not a lie. But what’s more true is that I just care about baking and family, in both cases the kind you cobble together with heart and imprecision.

Baking By Death is murder on the outside with a warm squishy middle. 

For reference, here is my ugly as sin pie. It took nearly 7 hours of labor to make, and when I Zoom with my family tonight, I’ll tease them about how I’ve finally won: I have an entire sweet potato pie to myself.*

Notice how I didn’t have the patience to actually crimp the crust or cut it all evenly? Nearly a year of quarantine has taught me that it ain’t a lack of time, it’s a lack of desire.

*Fine, my husband can have a slice. 

  • Dolly Llama
    Nov 28, 2020

    This is so sweet. Yeah, the patriarchy certainly does limit what women are allowed to do. But then everyone has stories of their grandmothers knitting entire wardrobes or managing events for hundreds of people or stealing pie recipes from either God or Satan, and we can only wonder what they could have done if they had the chance. Doesn’t diminish their accomplishments. And my apologies if this is not the way to handle loss—not only am I estranged, I had to draft this paragraph out and delete the words ‘MCF7’ and ‘cisplatin resistance’ several times, among others—but the way you and your siblings are honoring your loved ones’ memories is beautiful. Totally expected, since the most prominent underlying theme in your work, for me at least, is found families. (And Alice even gets to reconnect with her parents!!) Starting from childhood, we’re bombarded with the message that everything will be okay because your family loves you. Then, later on, or tragically early on for some of us, the challenge is learning to create that love in yourself. As you know. From those few short paragraphs, I’m getting that you’ve had to master that quickly, and even though they’re gone, the amazing women in your family gave you a head start on learning to heal.

    The recipe mystery is intriguing. Now, full disclosure, although I did come from a baking family, I’m the black sheep hard—an actual quote from my spouse this Thursday was “I’m saving the kale salad for last because it’s the closest thing we have to dessert”—so I have no pretense of being able to crack this over the internet. But I do want to hear about the troubleshooting! Rubber duck me. What are the main problems?

    Chilling the butter makes sense. That sounds like a pastry thing. But who told you to boil the potatoes!? Gah! I’m looking online and there are tons of pictures of sweet potatoes taken out of the oven before they’re swimming in their own juices and falling apart if you look at them sideways. Internet! C’mon! Is anyone even recommending garnet yams over jewel yams for a pie? All over the place, I tell you.

    I’m sorry, my search engine is suggesting “how to cook sweet potato in microwave”? Oh hell no.

    Screw crimping; that’s way too much work. That pie is lovely. I hope you enjoyed it.

    • feroshgirl
      Nov 29, 2020

      First off, thank you. I mean, is there a way to handle loss? Effed if I know. We are all just making it up as we go along.

      “Learning to create that love in yourself.” You said it. Estranged or not, I think that’s vital. We need people but we also need to (as cliched as it sounds) love and accept ourselves first. And if the family you have doesn’t cultivate that, make a new one. That’s my MO.

      Ha! Yes! Found family! I went back to my original notes after I finished ( I mean, let’s be real, “finished”) being all sappy. Turns out, it was right there in black and white too. The fact that you saw that just makes my dang day.

      I know this is out of order, but when you were talking about grandmothers stealing pie from God or Satan, I just had the theme song from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in my head. Females is strong as hell!

      Um, that comment from your spouse is a whole mood. Once a year I get my shit together to do this, maybe twice. The rest of the year I’m holding the flipper-turner looking thing and asking him “how is babby formed? How pancakes get in pan?”

      Okay, recipe mystery. God, this fucking pie. It will haunt me. Despite how raggedy it looked, this year’s tasted pretty good.

      Patti LaBelle told me to boil them. Part of the problem is that without an actual recipe to work from. I end up cobbling together bits and pieces of recipes I from the internet. I just needed to soften them so I could put them in the mixer. Patti seemed legit and there was a whole bunch of articles about how boiling maintains the flavor and nutrients and blah blah. Listen, it was a hot a mess. Literally. 30 minutes is not long enough when your yams are huge. I burnt the ever living daylights out of myself when I tried to lift them out of the water. And then I had to cut them up hot and boil them again.

      Ugh. Do not do.

      I should’ve baked them. That’s what I normally do. This is my punishment for innovating.

      I added molasses this year, which helped! The pie is supposed to be sweet, yes, but also have this sort of smoky flavor? I can’t describe it. You know how really good buttercream icing has a hint of salt to it? Kind of like that.

      Most recipes are just too sweet. I’ve also been trying to figure out if dark brown sugar is better than light. And I’ve been talking to the librarians at work about our historic recipe collection. Part of me wonders if the problem is just products or methods that people don’t really use anymore. But I haven’t gotten that far yet. Maybe 2021 I’ll try doing some research…

      Lol, for real, screw crimping.

      I enjoyed the hell out of it! I hope your meal was good too.

      • Dolly Llama
        Nov 29, 2020

        Dude, yes, found families. We need more kids’ movies where rather than everything being okay because the kid’s parents love them very very much, the parents don’t actually love the kid at all, but the kid turns out alright in the end anyway because they’ve learned to love themselves. (Xiyuan has opinions on this. But those are for later.)

        I hate to contradict Patti LaBelle—wait, am I reading wrong or are you implying you started boiling the sweet potatoes without cutting them first? Anyway, I’d assume the caramelization that happens while baking them at high heat (particularly with garnets) would contribute to the smoky flavor, but I’ve never had your grandmother’s pie, just weekly sweet potato dinners. So it confuses me that anyone is suggesting boiling in the first place. Unless they’re thinking about sweet potatoes like a russet? Idk.

        Historic recipe collection?! That is some damn serious research. (And thank you! I’ve been in charge of cooking full Thanksgiving dinners for almost a decade, so this year’s meal was the same as every year. Almost. Regular Tofurkey is better than holiday ham Tofurkey.)

      • feroshgirl
        Nov 30, 2020

        Yes, THIS! Oh man, I do need Xiyuan’s thoughts about this stat. I still can’t help but think these characters would have the best fucking dinner party (neither of us would be invited, clearly).

        I did start boiling them without cutting them BECAUSE IM A DUMMY. Ugh. It was the worst. I’ll contradict Patti. Agreed, I think the baked does give that carmelization flavor I want. Also, like, do I think my grandma was boiling potatos? She had 14 kids. She was baking those suckers. Must’ve been.

        HAHHAHA yeah I feel like holiday ham tofurkey is probably unneccessarily fancy. But what do I know?

      • Dolly Llama
        Dec 6, 2020

        Eh! You live and you learn.

        (We’re going to get slapped in the face hard with Yuan’s take down the line, but that is like, down-the-line down the line and he has a formal ceremony to ruin first.)

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