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

Pumpkin Pies

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

Pumpkin Crunch Cake served on Grandmother’s Theodore Haviland Rose-covered Porcelain Dessert Plate.

With great awe, I would watch my mom pack the Buick as we prepared for our traditional Thanksgiving Day trek. I knew to stay out of her way when she was shoving things here and there. She never said it aloud. Rather, it was her face that said it all. Her mind focused with determination.   Her eyes fixed on the task at hand.  Strongly flexed, her brow provided the needed “Oomph” to get things where she wanted them. 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 instinctively aware it was not a time to offer unsolicited advice.  Nor question her placement of a packed item, lest a piece of uncooperative luggage come flying his way.

Amazing to recall how many people, pieces of luggage, lovely desserts, and on more than one occasion, an oversized dog, a lone woman could cram into the family vehicle. Especially when I remind myself she did it years before the invention 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 survived those early road trips smashed tight with all our belongings. But we did. We survived.  Doing it in grand style.  Bickering, singing, and complaining all the way. With everything loaded and all passengers in place, we’d depart. Destination: Gramma & Papa’s house.

Road Trippers. October of 1982.

Road Trippers. October of 1982. Somme Woods.

Over the years the trips not only became longer, but the car seemed to shrink.  The dog, my brother, sister, and Aunt having grown larger, those subsequent road trips became real character builders. Imagine three children, one teenager and a full-grown Irish Setter seated in the back of a sedan 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.  Presto her magical ability to closely monitor our behavior, all from the comfort of her front seat.  One glance and she had full insight into our shenanigans without even turning around.

holly dog

Holly Dog. November of 2001. McDowell Woods.

Although a young mother, she was also a wise mother. She prepared for everything.  On long trips, making a large bag of chipped, chopped ham sandwiches. The bun always with a nice smear of butter, kept the bread from getting soggy.  A generous squirt of tangy yellow mustard usually covered the modest pile of Isley’s shaved ham.  These remained hidden until she ran out of ideas to keep us quiet. At our noisiest, a slightly squished sandwich wrapped tight in plastic would make its way from the secret spot up front to our waiting hands in the back.

My mom knew those sandwiches would not only bring nutrition, but also provide much-needed peace and quiet in the car. Our mouths would be full you see, and we knew not to talk with our mouths full. Mom had made sure to teach us that. She and my dad would relish those few moments of calm. Who could have predicted way back then clingy plastic food wrap, the one my dad sold with great success, would put all three of us through out-of-state college without any debt?  Certainly having that knowledge would have stunned us all into a longer lasting period of silence.  My parents appreciated those rare moments of calm. But for me, there was much to be enjoyed in the loud chaos of those tight-quartered, character building, Thanksgiving Day trips.

lakehouse Lake Carroll, IL 001

Peace & Quiet Rd. Summer 2012. Lake Carrol.

If lucky enough to score the window seat, the blurry landscape whizzing by at 70 mph was entertaining.  A silent movie in fast forward, my surroundings changing over time. At first whirring, the 5-lanes of busy traffic beside us obscured my view.  Next arriving at the highly anticipated, but no less frustrating, standstill of cars that was I-80.  Gradually, the busy tollway became a divided highway. Five lanes would become two. For me, less traffic and fewer lanes brought an improved view. For my parents, I think it brought less anxiety.  Their moods always brightened the closer we got to the small hometown of their childhood.

Manufacturing smokestacks were replaced with fields of stumps leftover from harvested corn. Row after row of them with an occasional barn dotting the landscape.  Flat farm fields transformed into modest elevations of gently rolling hills blanketed in trees. At first the deciduous variety, barren of their colorful foliage. In our own version of Over the River and Through the Woods, by way of a long bridge, we’d cross over a vast body of desolate ice. It was hard to believe, this was the same Meander Creek Reservoir that in summertime, swarmed with so much activity.

Excited, my brother, sister and I anticipated the expansive grove of “straight trees”, our affectionate name for them.   This patch of tall pines reached for the sky in a most straight and upright fashion. Their deep evergreen contrasted against the horizon really caught one’s eye. If the window happened to be open, the refreshing smell of a million pine needles grabbed hold of your nose.  Whichever sense they alerted, those special trees signaled our long journey was nearing an end.

Pine Needles. Spring of 2011. Morton Arboretum.

Pine Needles. Spring of 2011. Morton Arboretum.

Except the Thanksgiving Day we paused.  The trip the car stopped. Putter, Putter, Gasp, Gasp, slowly we made our way to the side of the road. Packed to capacity and stuck on the highway, ironically not far from our final destination. These were the days before cell phones and it was a holiday. Whining broke out simultaneously.  I swear even the red dog let out a whimper. My dad bundling himself up, flipped on the blinking hazard lights then opened his door to step out into the tundra.  With a slam of the door and in a cold blast of late autumn air, we heard him say, “I’ll be back”.

There we sat. And sat. Click, Click, Click, the flashing hazards warned. With each click my mom’s face grew one more shade of darker red.  From her mind’s eye, with each click of those hazards, Thanksgiving Day was being ruined. That is, until she remembered something. Her smile returned as did her coloring to it’s more natural shade of Irish.

My mom asked if we were hungry. Pulling the keys out of the ignition, she popped the passenger door open.  With purpose and fury, she made her away around to the back of the car. The trunk lid blocked our view, but we could hear her moving things around, searching.  Hands full, leaving the trunk wide open, she returned carrying two large pumpkin pies. Of course each under the cover of clingy plastic, wooden toothpicks holding it up high. Restating her earlier question, this time asking whether anyone was hungry for pumpkin pie?

In a most untraditional manner, dessert came before Thanksgiving dinner that year.  Served directly from the pie plate and eaten in the car. 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 savored that pie, rather than making room for it.

My Pumpkin. October 2010. Malta.

My Pumpkin. October 2010. Malta.

In a silly but never-the-less important way, I got a glimpse of the “spirit” of gratitude:   I might not always receive what I wanted, however, I always got what I needed at exactly the right time. Finally out of the car now gathered around Gramma’s table, together we made the sign of the cross and said grace.  Giving thanks for our blessings.  That Thanksgiving Day I remembered even the smallest, everyday-variety ones. The frequently almost overlooked ones like pine needles, plastic wrap, red dogs and most certainly, pumpkin pie. Then after dinner, we shared a lot of laughter about why the pies were nowhere to be found.

My next recipe, Pumpkin Crunch Cake Bars, is one I make throughout the year, despite featuring pumpkin as its star ingredient. It also happens to be one of my husband’s and several of friends and family members favorite desserts. Maybe they feel the same way I do?   It would be silly to reserve a dessert this good for just Thanksgiving Day.  Many times we enjoy a piece or two BEFORE dinner.

Originally, I got this recipe from my Aunt who requested it from a friend. Since then, I have seen a similar recipe called Linda’s Crunch Cake 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 micro plane. Then head to your local spice shop, 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



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


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.

Serves 20.

©, 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: