Dessert Every DayMy grandfather was a trip.
An English professor, his daily class motto was, “Don’t let the sun set on your ignorance.” Over the years, we debated Shakespeare, Hughes, Cullen and his favorite, Robert Frost. I owe my love of the written word, in great part, to him. As significant as that may be, my fondest memories of him have little to do with poetry or prose. They’re from when I was about four when, after my parents split, I lived with my grandparents for a few months while my Mom was moving us from Boston to DC.
Their chic home at the end of a long winding road had always been my favorite place, so it was an ideal transition, though I missed my mother terribly. I was soothed by wide stretches of time to enjoy the rambling house. Here’s what I did: read, tinker on the piano, create tableau with Lladro figurines, read, look for shapes like clouds in the abstract art on the walls, mimic the faces of the African masks they collected, play dress up in Grandma’s closet, count the tiny oranges on the citrus tree in the living room window, read, pop over to The Maddens next door, run around the grassy yard and the forest just beyond the patio—but not too deep—and, of course, read.
Most of all I loved setting the table for every meal. My grandmother didn’t have a china cabinet, she had a walk-in china closet. It was lined with shelves stacked with crystal, china and silver the way her dressing room upstairs was full of clothes, handbags and shoes. There were plain bisque plates and saucers were rimmed in gold. There were other plates meant only for a certain dish, like one for seafood imprinted with a Queen Angel fish. There was a whole set of bowls and platters shaped like vegetables and cut crystal tumblers and goblets that cast rainbows across the room when you turned the light on. It was a wonderland. Who needed Legos when I could create a whole landscape across the table? I relished every detail of the ritual.
At the table, always two glasses for Grandpa, one for iced tea and one for water. Sometimes the iced tea was swapped for iced coffee at lunch. He was the first person I had ever seen drink that particular beverage. This was way before Starbucks that he had me pour the leftover coffee from breakfast over ice, splash it with milk and stir in one Sweet & Low with what Grandma taught me was an iced tea spoon. I marveled at the long, scrolled silver handle, wondering who in the world thought to make a specific spoon to stir one type of drink with. At dinner, I would pick amber glass ice cream cups or shallow bowls with petite spoons for dessert, which my grandfather insisted be served every day. No exceptions.
Grandpa had reached the age where Grandma was trimming the fat on his diet. She was hawking his salt and sugar intake, as a wife does, according to doctor’s orders. She did all of the cooking, which gave her control over most of what he ate. He grudgingly obliged, but was adamant about that dessert every day. Come what may.
One afternoon, she had an unexpected meeting after work at the university. This left him to pick me up from the daycare on campus and make us dinner. We were off to a comical start when he pulled up to the playground in his mustard brown Ford Pinto. I hated that car. Everyone in our family hated that car, except Grandpa. Dolly, their longtime housekeeper, rolled her eyes whenever he gave her a ride home in it. It was a weird rounded shape, the seats were uncomfortable and it had no air conditioning to combat the Virginia summer heat. My grandmother always drove Volvos, trading up with each new model. She had a “lead foot” and I looked forward to zooming home in her shiny car every day. When Grandpa showed up in that farting brown bean, I was not pleased and refused to get in. “Where’s Grandma” I asked, with a period, not a question mark at the end. He looked me dead in the eye and said “Get your little behind in this car” with a period, not a question mark at the end. He gunned the engine, and away we crawled.
Trying to break the ice, I asked if he might like to take me to Kmart to get a Barbie I had my eye on. “She has on workout gear and even comes with her own set of weights. Affordable and a very healthy example,” I reasoned. My grandparents had been comrades of Kenneth & Mamie Clark and one day, over after-dinner frappes at Friendly’s, told me about the Doll Test because, yes, that’s the level of conversation they had with me at the age of four. I wove this into my pitch, thinking it would drive things home. “The Black Barbies are on sale, too. And you know that’s not always true. The Black one is my first choice” I offered. As if a reward were in order. My grandfather raised his brow at my cheek, but was not discernibly impressed.
He ignored my request and replied “Your grandmother put me in charge of dinner, so we we’re eating out.” He set his jaw like he was on a serious mission, turning down a bumpy road. The 8-track in the Pinto was busted, so we rode in silence. I was used to eating out with grown-ups and, as a child foodie, was excited to see what new spot he seemed so determined to get to. I did wish I could change out of my play clothes into something more appropriate, but I knew I was on thin ice after the tantrum about the car, so I just refreshed my cherry Chapstick and kept my mouth shut.
We pulled up to a rusty takeout BBQ truck. He ordered, “Gimme a large slab of ribs with extra sauce, potato salad, collard greens with neckbones and mac & cheese.” When the buxom lady the color of candied yams behind the counter returned to bag it all up, she grabbed four soft slices of white bread to tuck on top, with a side of coleslaw. The smell of savory grease in the car made my mouth water. But even at my tender age, I suspected this menu was not in line with the diet Grandma had established for him. When I asked as much, he turned to me with pleading eyes. “Don’t tell your grandmother what we ate. Let’s cooperate—you just learned that word on Sesame Street. Let’s cooperate to enjoy this together. It’ll be our little secret.”
I needed to think. I couldn’t wait to dig in, but this was a tattle-tale’s dream. The gospel choir of brown sugar, hot peppers and vinegar in my nose almost had me sold, when a tiny light bulb went off in my head. I smiled. He smiled back. I sat up to my full posture and said “Grandpa, I would be happy to keep this between us. If we could just swing by Kmart on the way home...”
He taught me another new word that day. “Touche.”
Only coasters and placemats were set on the table—more for hiding evidence than keeping tradition. We proceeded to commit what was tantamount to sacrilege in my grandmother’s dining room and ate right out of the styrofoam with plastic utensils, smacking our lips and building a gruesome tower of bones. My grandparents were devout Catholics, and I wondered if this moment would make it with Grandpa into the confessional. After we had washed our red, sticky hands, he took the vanilla ice cream out of the freezer to soften, while I freed my new Barbie from her box. Then he reached in the spattered bag to pull out a final container. What could possibly be left? He told me to close my eyes, lifted the lid and waved it under my nose. Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Butter. It was summer in the South. Of course. Warm peach cobbler.
Our full bellies introduced a bit more sanity into the situation. “Wait, Grandpa.” I held my tiny index finger in the air. “We’re going too far. Close the cobbler.” The sternness in my voice parroted his earlier tone, when he’d told me to get my lil behind in the car. “Listen, missy...” he began to protest, eyeing the clock. Grandma would be back soon but, by my count, there was still time to get ourselves together. “Trust me.” I chirped. He sat and watched as I methodically cleared the table of the carnage and walked it into the kitchen. Then I washed my hands again, made my way around to the overhead china cabinet on the opposite side of the island (because yes, she had more than one) and climbed up on the bar stool to pull out two silver dessert cups.
As I returned to the table, I announced,“If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.” I carefully filled each cup with a heaping spoon of cobbler, which Grandpa topped with the ice cream. He sat back before plunging in and said,“I’m glad we did this, Lisa Mae. You’re a bright one. And sweet, too.” It was a rare tender moment between the two of us who adored each other, but enjoyed a healthy dose of sarcasm in our usual exchanges. I patted his hand, looked in deep into his eyes and replied, “You betta close up that trash and take it all the way outside before she gets home.”
Everything I ate that night had a faint aftertaste of my cherry lip balm.
I never dimed on him about our forbidden meal until many years later, after he had died. I shared it after dinner, the evening my eldest cousin inherited Grandpa’s seat at the head of the table. Everyone laughed at the story, but no one louder or harder than my grandmother. She dabbed tears from her eyes with a linen napkin, as she shook her head and told me to bring out the silver cups and some spoons. Because dessert every day.
The woman-of-the-world in me loves a good crème brulee or tiramisu but, in the end, I’m a Southern girl. My two favorite desserts are American down home basics: peach cobbler and cherry pie. When I started making my own, I decided to combine the two, because—why choose? The crust I use is my take on one from my kitchen staple, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. She was an iconic chef who introduced Southern cooking to the gourmet world. A fellow Virginian, like my family, Edna hailed from Freetown and stayed true to her farm to table roots, elevating soul food to high cuisine status, and claiming her seat among our country’s culinary greats. Her recipes, elegant yet candid and down to earth, have always felt like a bit of both sides of my family folded into one. For this, she has always trumped Julia Child on my shelf. Whenever I need to know how to make a classic version of anything, Edna Lewis’ books are the first I reach for.
*To Note: 1. You may also use a pre-made store-bought crust in a pinch to save time. If so, remove from the fridge 15-20 min before assembly to let it soften. 2. There is nothing like fresh late summer peaches and cherries BUT thawed frozen fruit will do fine for year round deliciousness. (Pitted dark cherries in a jar work, too, just make sure they’re in juice or water, not heavy syrup.)
Crust: I use a food processor instead of mixing this by hand. Place the flour and salt in the food processor, cover and mix for 5-10 seconds. Open and add the chilled butter. Pulse until it has the texture of cornmeal. Sprinkle the cold water quickly over the surface, mix with a large spoon, and pull the dough together lightly. Gently shape it into a ball with your fingers and then divide it into 2 slightly unequal portions. Place the dough in the fridge for 20-30 min before rolling. (Edna suggests chilling the rolling pin as well for smoother rolling.)
Remove the dough about 15-20 minutes before rolling it out so it will soften. Preheat the oven to 450F and grease a medium sized glass or ceramic casserole dish with butter. Lightly flour the rolling pin and board, and roll out the larger half to fit the bottom of the casserole dish. Roll the remaining pie dough out and cut into 8 strips or so.
FRUIT FILLING: Set aside 1 tbsp of sugar. Place the peaches and cherries in a large bowl and season with the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, rum, salt and the rest of the sugar. Sprinkle in the cornstarch. Turn a few times with a wooden spoon to mix, being gentle with the fruit.
Assembly: Sprinkle 1 tbsp raw sugar over the bottom crust. Pour the fruit into the casserole dish. Distribute the small pieces of butter evenly throughout. Weave the strips of pie dough in a lattice pattern over the fruit. Moisten the rim with cold water and press to seal the strips. Whisk 1/2 tsp of sugar into the 1 beaten egg and brush the strips carefully with it, not straying into the fruit (I use a paint brush.) Save a pinch of that last bit of sugar to sprinkle over the top. Bake at 450F on the middle rack for 10 minutes, then lower to 425F and bake until golden, about another 35 minutes. Cool and serve warm in a pretty dish topped with vanilla bean ice cream.