The Revealing, Secret Diaries of a Not-So-Secret Foodie

Pumpkin

In Essay, Faith, Food, Gab, Photos, Recipe on March 31, 2011 at 9:02 am

pumpkin crunch cakeWith great awe I would watch my mom pack up the hardtop Buick Electra as we prepared for the traditional Thanksgiving Day trek. I knew enough to stay out of her way when she was in the midst of shoving things here and there. She never said it specifically; however, her face said it all. Her mind focused with great determination, her eyes fixed on the task at hand and her brow seriously flexed for the added “Oomph” to get things where they needed to go. Yep, I knew not to go anywhere near her or that car. I just sat back and took it all in. My dad also seemed to instinctively know not to offer any advice, nor question the placement of a packed item, lest a piece of uncooperative luggage come flying his way.

I love to recall how many people, pieces of luggage, lovely desserts and on more than one occasion, an oversized dog, a lone woman could creatively cram in the family vehicle. Especially, when I remind myself that she did it years before the advent of the now common mini-van. Nope. She did it seventies-style. No car seats or seat belts to hinder her ingenuity. Sometimes I wonder how we all survived those early road trips precariously perched atop all our belongings. But we did. We survived. And we did it in grand-style packed to the gills; bickering, teasing, singing and complaining all the way. With the car packed and all passengers in place, we’d depart. Destination: Gramma & Papa’s house.

Over the years the trips not only became longer, but the car seemed to shrink as the dog, my brother, sister, Aunt and I had grown larger. Those subsequent road trips became real character builders. Imagine; three children, one teenager and a full grown Irish Setter lined up on the bench seat in the back under the watchful eye of their mother. Contrary to the myth she liked to propagate, my mom did not have a third eye in the back of her head. Rather, she would precisely position the rear-view mirror in a way that allowed her to closely monitor our behavior from the comfort of her front seat.

Although a young mother, she was also a wise mother. From experience, she learned to pack a stash of Chipped Chopped Ham sandwiches. The bun of the sandwich always had a nice smear of butter and a squirt of tangy yellow mustard that topped the modest pile of Isley’s shaved ham. She kept them hidden in the front seat with her until she ran out of ideas to keep us quiet. Always at our noisiest, a slightly squished sandwich, tightly wrapped in clear plastic, would make its way from the hidden spot up front to our little waiting hands in the back.

My mom knew that the sight of plastic-wrapped sandwiches would not only bring delight, but provide the much-needed peace and quiet in the car. Ours mouths would be full you see. And if anything, we knew you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full. Mom had made sure to teach us that. Now, happily munching on our mid-day snacks, she and my dad, together, would smile at each other enjoy the few moments of silence. But who could have predicted way back then, that clingy plastic wrap, the one my dad sold with great success, would one day put all three of us through college. Certainly, having that knowledge then would have been sufficient to stun all of us into a longer lasting period of silence.

My parents definitely savored those rare moments of silence. But for me, there was much to be enjoyed in the loud chaos of those tight-quartered, character building, Thanksgiving Day Trips. If lucky enough to score the window seat, the blurry landscape whizzing by at 70 mph for me was like a silent movie in fast forward. I would notice how my surroundings slowly changed with time. At first, the whirring 3-lanes of busy traffic would obscure my view. Most times we’d come to the anticipated, but still frustrating, standstill. Annoyed, my dad always cracked the window and then fiddled with the radio dial. The chilly breeze that briefly entered the car brought the industrial smell of the city which reminded me that despite the long hour in the car, we still were not far from our home. Once we passed the large Grand Canyon-like hole that had resulted from mining limestone, traffic always seemed to subside. Then gradually, the busy toll way would become a divided highway. Three lanes would become two. For me, less traffic and fewer lanes meant an improved view. For my parents, I think it meant less anxiety, for their moods always seemed to lighten when this occurred.

Manufacturing smokestacks were replaced with fields of leftover stumps from the harvested corn. Row, after row, after row of them. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the landscape would transform. The farmers’ flat fields were slowly replaced by a very modest elevation of gently rolling hills covered with trees. At first the trees were the deciduous variety, now barren of their colorful leaves. Then in our own version of Over the River and Through the Woods, by way of a long bridge, we’d cross an enormous body of barren ice. It was hard to believe that once thawed, this was the same Meander Creek Reservoir that when crossed in the summertime, swarmed with activity.

Excited, my brother, sister and I knew that after the bridge we would soon pass the expansive grove of “straight trees”, as we affectionately referred to them. These tall pine trees seemed to touch the sky in a most straight and upright fashion. Their deep evergreen hue, when contrasted with the surrounding stark landscape, always caught one’s eye. If the window happened to be cracked, the refreshing smell of a million pine needles would really grab your nose’s attention. More importantly, whichever sense they happened to alert, those special trees signalled that our journey was nearing an end.

Except on that one very memorable Thanksgiving Day Road trip; the trip the car stopped. Putter, Putter, Gasp, Gasp. Slowly we made our way to the side of the road. Packed to capacity, and ironically, stuck on the highway not too far from our final destination. Unfortunately, these were the days before cell phones and it was a holiday. We all began to whine simultaneously. I swear even the red dog let out a whimper. My dad bundled himself up, flipped on the blinking hazard lights and opened the driver’s side door. Just as we heard him say “I’ll be back”, a cold blast of autumn air hit the back seat. All of the car’s occupants became uncharacteristically subdued, only the repetitive clicking sound of the hazards was heard.

There we sat. And sat. Click, Click, Click continued the flashing hazards. With each click my mom’s face grew one more shade of darker red, as viewed from the back, through that rear-view mirror. It wasn’t the cold that was making her face turn a vibrant shade of crimson. It was obvious that she was becoming more and more angry, the longer we sat on the side of the road. From her mind’s eye, with each click of those hazards, Thanksgiving Day was being ruined. That is, until she remembered something. Suddenly, her mood changed. Her face began to return to its more natural shade.

Curiously, my mom asked if we were hungry. She pulled the keys out of the ignition and popped the passenger door open. With purpose and fury, she made her away around to the back of the car. The trunk lid was blocking our view, but we could hear her moving things around. She was searching for something. She then made her way back to her side of the car, leaving the trunk wide open. In her hands were two large pumpkin pies, of course, under the cover of clingy plastic. She then restated her earlier question, this time asking whether anyone was hungry for pumpkin pie.

In a most untraditional manner, dessert came before dinner that Thanksgiving. It was served directly from the pie plate and eaten in the car. For me, they were the best pumpkin pies I had ever tasted. They were completely satisfying. Maybe, the boredom of waiting in that car for my dad to return had convinced my mind that my body was starving. A mind made even more ravenous with the slightest thought of food. So, when given the opportunity to taste the real thing, it was destined to be utter bliss. Or perhaps more probable, unlike every other year prior to that day, I was not already stuffed with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and the like before I got around to dessert. I actually savored the pie rather than making room for it.

In a silly way, but none-the-less important one, I got my first glimpse of the “spirit” of gratitude that was to be celebrated later that evening: I might not always receive what I asked for, however, amazingly I always seemed to get just what I needed. That night, finally out of the car and gathered around the table together we prayed, giving thanks for the blessings received throughout the year. However, that Thanksgiving Day I took a moment to include even the smallest, everyday-variety ones. The frequently almost overlooked ones like pine needles, plastic wrap, red dogs and most certainly, pumpkin pie. And then, after dinner we shared a lot of laughs about why the pies were nowhere to be found.

My next recipe, Pumpkin Crunch Cake Bars, is one that I make throughout the year, despite featuring pumpkin as its star ingredient. It also happens to be one of my husband’s favorite desserts. So much so, that ever since I have been making his birthday cake, close to fifteen years now, this is the one he chooses. Maybe he feels the same way I do. It would be silly to be thankful only once per year. In much the same way, it would be silly to reserve a dessert this good for just Thanksgiving Day. Sometimes, he even eats a bar or two before dinner.

Originally, I got this recipe from my Aunt who had requested it from a friend. Since then, I have seen a similar recipe called Linda’s Crunch Cake posted on the top of certain brands of eggs year round. They must also know that it is keeper. Slight variations of one another both recipes are a type of “dump” cake. In my opinion, the addition of freshly grated nutmeg sets this dessert apart. It is a must. So treat yourself to an inexpensive microplane. Then head to Penzey’s or wherever you prefer to buy whole nutmeg. You will be glad you did. Take a moment and indulge yourself in the wonderful fragrance of the freshly grated nutmeg. Be sure to dust the finished bars with fresh shavings of nutmeg just before serving. Its result will be a dessert not only beautiful for the eyes, but an aromatic experience for the nose.

Pumpkin Crunch Cake Bars

Ingredients:

Bars

1 15-ounce of canned pumpkin

1 cup sugar

1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk

3 eggs

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg

1 box of yellow cake mix

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1 cup butter, melted

Frosting

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese (The light version is OK, but do not use fat-free)

½ cup powdered sugar

¾ cup Cool Whip   (If frozen, be sure to thaw in fridge overnight or on counter for at least 4 hours before using in this recipe.  Do not try to rush the thawing. ) 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 9×13 pan with a sheet of waxed paper. Leave enough extra to slightly hang over edge of pan to help you pull cake out of pan later.

Mix pumpkin, evaporated milk, eggs, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg together. Pour mixture into lined pan. Sprinkle entire box of cake mix evenly over top of the pumpkin mixture. Layer the coarsely chapped nuts on top of cake mix. Spoon melted butter over the nut layer. Bake at 350 for 55-60 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool. Flip out onto foiled lined baking rack. Pull off wax paper and discard. Next beat cream cheese, powdered sugar and cool whip. Beat with electric mixer until fluffy. Frost cake (be sure cake is completely cool or frosting will melt). Cut into bars. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg, if desired.

Pine Needles. Spring of 2011. Morton Arboretum.

Pine Needles. Spring of 2011. Morton Arboretum.

My Pumpkin. Fall of 2010. Malta.

Road Trippers. October of 1982.

Road Trippers. October of 1982. Somme Woods.

Buddies. August of 1976. St. Andrew's Park.

Buddies. August of 1976. St. Andrew’s Bay.

Holly Dog. November of 2001. Herrick Lake.

© suebthefoodie.com, 2011.

  1. Again Sue, bringing wonderful memories to mind as I read. Wish we could put the memories on video.
    I love the Pumpkin Crunch Bars – they are better then my pumpkin pies! Luv Mom

  2. WOW…I feel like I was in the car with you. Not only in the car…I could almost predict every move of you mom. You are an amazing writer, chef, daughter, wife, mom, sister, niece. Please don’t stop doing what you love most…sharing! 😉

    • Thank you AJ. Hey although not on this trip, but sometimes you were there with us ; ). Good times!

  3. SueB…. Guess what I’ll be serving for Thanksgiving dessert!!! Let me just say I’m VERY excited. I will change the margarine to butter and cool whip to real whipped cream… it’ll be all right… yes?

    • Always happy to excite someone ; ). I hope it makes it into your family’s KEEPER box. Butter will be wonderful. I’ve used it in this before and let me say, “YUM”. Never used real whip cream so can’t comment. If you do try it in the frosting, please let me know the results. I would love to know. Happy Thanksgiving Friend. You are a blessing to me.

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