I had good intentions. I really did. I furiously worked away at this blog post with the clear intent to publish it yesterday, during the Labor Day weekend — that time of year when we all take one more stab at perfecting that thick, juicy burger, teriyaki chicken kabob, or baby back rib rack on backyard barbecues all over the land. I wrote:
For our family, the Labor Day backyard barbecue is tradition indeed, lovingly manifested by parents who truly enjoyed the outdoors and any opportunity to entertain. Mom, busy in the kitchen preparing our beloved standbys: potato salad, macaroni salad, and baked beans, and Dad outside at the barbecue, sunburned arms and neck peeking out from his thread-bare T-shirt, and white skinny legs poking through Bermuda shorts like worn stakes holding up a faded denim tent.
U.S. tradition — and Wikipedia — tell us that Labor Day, annually observed on the first Monday in September, was created to “celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers.” Well, no offense to laborers everywhere, but I know what it’s really all about. Food, glorious food. Labor Day is about work, all right — working in the kitchen, in front of the stove, or over the barbecue pit. And that suits me just fine.
This year, like many before it and hopefully many after it, I am celebrating the official laborers holiday by doing just what my mom and dad taught me. As I prepare to host our annual family Labor Day barbecue (coupled with the annual brother-in-law birthday celebration), I chase away my unemployed doldrums with a couple of days of toiling in my kitchen. As my mother would say, it’s not really work when it’s doing something you love for people you love.
It has been awhile since I truly played for hours in the kitchen, so I was itching to get in there and make a mess. Any foodie worth her kosher salt knows it’s not really a successful day in the kitchen unless there’s a dusting of flour on the floor, stray raisins under the dining room table, something sticky on the cabinet knobs, no available space left on the counters, half a dozen egg shells that didn’t quite make the trash can across the room, and a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. Oh, thank you, Labor Day, for rolling around when you did!
After I wrote those words, true to my calling, I got busy in the kitchen. I made a quiche using up leftovers in my fridge, because I know my nephew will arrive too hungry to wait for the barbecue to fire up and do its thing. I threw steamed broccoli, chopped onions, smoked gouda cheese, and some chopped soppressata (an Italian dry salami — so yummy!) together with eggs, milk, and a 1/2 cup of Bisquick. It came out perfectly delicious — and with less calories and guilt than a quiche made with pie crust. Or so I’m telling myself.
Then I made a batch of brownies (for my chocolate-loving niece) using a box mix tweaked with some surprises tucked inside like tiny presents in a Christmas stocking: mini chocolate chips, pecans, and toffee bits — my fav accessories to a brownie mix. Next came the baked beans for our barbecue (with bacon, of course), and a pineapple upside down cake for my brother-in-law. I can’t begin to describe for you how good my house smelled!
But I didn’t stop there. Looking through my fridge, I wanted to do something different with a carton of fresh strawberries. Smoothies? Boring. Shortcake? So last decade. Strawberry cream pie? We have a winner! Then, we quickly had a loser.
Yes, I had great intentions. And it is so frustrating when great intentions in the kitchen are reduced to mere puddles of nothingness — much like the cream pie filling oozing itself into oblivion in the fridge.
The strawberry cream pie I envisioned was something I first pictured in my mind a few months ago, when the sweet fruit started to hit the farmer’s markets. I love the fruit — but I love a cream pie filling even more, so I decided to blissfully marry the two in a graham cracker crust. Unfortunately, the recipe for cream pie filling that my mother used so often in her day that the page from the recipe book looks like it’s been through the war, let me down — not once, not twice, but three times.
That’s a lot of ingredients to throw down the sink– when you’re unemployed. Based on a very old Betty Crocker vanilla cream pie recipe for a 9-inch pie, it calls for all the things that make a good base pie filling: sugar, eggs, milk, cornstarch, flour, salt, butter, and pure vanilla. The recipe served my mother very well over the years, and I remember many decadent banana cream, coconut cream, and chocolate cream pies to die for — made with love in my mother’s kitchen using this good old Betty standby recipe. And I don’t recall any of them doing a soup impersonation on my dessert plate.
I wondered what could have gone wrong with the recipe. Was it the weather? Fluctuations in temperature and humidity have been known to play nasty with certain culinary tasks. Did I boil it on the stovetop exactly 60 seconds, as the recipe instructs? Or did I miscalculate the time, only cooking it for 53 seconds? Was my cornstarch — the star thickener of the recipe — out of date? Nope. Are they manufacturing cornstarch differently than they did in Betty’s day? Were the eggs yolks too large or not large enough? (Betty didn’t say which size to use.) Did I allow it to cool sufficiently before placing it in the refrigerator to chill? Is my refrigerator not as cold as one that Betty used when she and her kitchen experts were creating this recipe? Who knows?
I started to wonder if, like me, Betty herself needs a little reinventing.
Could this old, oft-used recipe need some tweaking after all these years? Is it possible that with all the culinary advances and discoveries we’ve seen over the last 50 or 60 years, some of our tried and truest formulations of the past just don’t work very well in the kitchens of the 21st century? Interesting.
Only one way to find out. So, onward and upward I go in my quest to find a cream pie filling that is all at once fresh, creamy, delicious, versatile, and able to hold its own in the pie plate. It’s a labor of love. I’ll keep you posted on my findings.