Ruining the family recipes

I have plenty of talents and I’m really not a bad cook so I’m not sure why I’ve never mastered baking. Maybe I gave up too easily when my pies ended up with the lattice crust floating like flotsam on a soupy apple sea. For years, I did everyone a favor by ordering pies from a local bakery at Thanksgiving until my younger son fortuitously married The Crust Whisperer.

One of the things I have loved most about my sons’ marriages is being able to incorporate traditions from the daughters-in-law’s families into our own. My younger son’s wife is from the East Coast so she has spent virtually every Thanksgiving with us even when she and my son were dating. She is a first-rate cook and baker and her pies have become an essential part of our holiday.

My mother was a wonderful baker, too, but she died long before I had the opportunity to really watch what she did. So I was delighted when my daughter-in-law offered to teach me her family’s treasured pie recipes. I sat in the kitchen and took copious notes as she made the crusts and fillings. She told me which apples to use, and crust tips like making sure the Crisco and the butter were really cold.

So the next year, I was deeply honored when she asked if I could make the apple and pumpkin pies from her recipes since she was busy with an infant. I intended to do her proud. Just as I go nuts if an editor mangles text that is under my by-line, I knew that these pies represented her family. If your name is associated with it, you want – nay, demand – that it live up to your standards.

In retrospect, having my older son, Rory, help me was not the best idea. While successful in his career, Rory has always had learning disabilities in math, which could be problematical in cooking. It doesn’t help that he tends to confuse the one cup measure for the two cup measure since they are both, after all, glass containers and end in “cup.”

We didn’t have dry measuring cups. Now, I was prepared to argue this as a cup is a cup as far as volume is concerned. Not necessarily in baking, explained the daughter-in-law after the fact. (She has to be the sweetest, most diplomatic person on the planet.) They are indeed the same measurement. It is just easier to get an accurate measure of dry ingredients in a dry measuring cup, which you fill to the top and level off with a straight edge. Even small differences can change the outcome of a recipe, especially, she noted, pointedly, in baking.

I still can’t figure out what happened with the crusts. We genuinely tried. Rory and I chilled our dough thoroughly, as instructed, before rolling it out. We dusted the countertop and the rolling pin liberally with flour. But the crusts would disintegrate when we tried to pick them up, and after repeated re-roll-out attempts – each one less successful than the last – they ultimately Super Glued themselves to the counter surface. In desperation, we finally just scraped the dough blobs off the counter and pressed them into the pan. Alas, there wasn’t really enough visible at the top to do any crimping. In fact, there wasn’t much dough peeking up at all.

The pumpkin pie, meanwhile, inexplicably listed to one side so that the filling was spilling out on one side but not high enough on the other.

We couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing about our pies that looked anything like her beautiful Sunset Magazinesque versions. Not to place blame anywhere, especially considering all my own previous failures with pie crusts, but I do think that cup thing was a factor.

When my daughter-in-law arrived on Thanksgiving morning and surveyed our work, she heroically disguised her dismay. That her name – nay, her family’s name – should be associated with these fruity fiascoes must have cut her to the quick. But in her inimitable fashion, she thanked us for baking, even gamely downed a piecelet of each that night. My personal theory is that after dinner, she got in her car, rolled up the windows, and screamed for 40 miles.

There hasn’t been any mention of my making the pies since then, even though she is now encumbered with two tiny kids. I’m sure she still wrings her hands at the memory and wonders, how can people not follow simple instructions? Rather than unleash the Crust Killer and the Math Mangler on her recipes again, I think she’d make those pies with the kids strapped to her body, and peel the apples with her teeth. Even I would have to agree: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Just for the record, I got a set of dry measuring cups for Christmas that year.

* Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life in The La Jolla Light. Reach her at