Isn't he dapper? Meet Sergeant Luckey. He was my grandfather, and his family hailed from Ohio, and when I learned this a decade or so ago, I thought to myself, Hmm, Ohio. As in Hmm, Timbuktu. I knew Ohio was one of the fifty, one of the lower forty-eight, even. I knew it had Cleveland, had made it big via Monopoly, and had a serious imbalance of vowels to consonants. But beyond that, Hmm...
My sad sorry grasp on geography was embarrassing, but it didn't affect me directly, until last year. And when it turned out we were moving? Well, everyone helpfully schooled me up quick, saying "Oooh, Ohio, it's so cold." So although this was news, to me anyway, I equipped us all pronto with mittens and coats and thick, ear-flapped hats. They didn't help one wit with Ohio's worst weather. But they sure came in handy for a mid-winter move to the wind-blown Midwest.
So I wanted to give thanks, before I forget, to all you sage souls who obviously know your stuff. Because boy oh boy, were you right: Ohio is cold. Not as cold as it gets, not by a long shot. I now know there are several nearby sister states — hello, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota! — that I hear ex-pats fondly call The Frozen Tundra. But plenty cold enough to shock this silly Seattle girl into submission. I, who've gone whole winters without wearing a coat. Who've been known to call 40° "freezing!" Who maybe might've thought hats were for wimps, scarves for real dressers. Right-o! Now I get it. These winter woolies might be spelled a-c-c-e-s-s-o-r-i-e-s, but the proper pronunciation is actually 'necessities'. Like shoes or coffee or oxygen, say.
We're learning, re-calibrating, shivering, chattering. Twenty's the new forty, officially chilly. We've been going steady with snow since early December, though the white stuff is often a good sign, we've found. Snow likes a mild cold, not much below thirty. True, it might make all your pictures look grainy, like your lens was filthy or your speed too fast. And you'll likely be urged to "fix" up your photos, by a computer plumb flustered by all this dull gray. I tried it, for kicks, and it sure was striking, all brilliant and shiny bright black and white. It was also a lie, and so I undid it. Fact is, our world's been sixty-three shades of cement since well before Christmas. With a little ice blue thrown in for pizazz.
Yup, the snow's alright, entertaining, even lovely. It's the single digits, really, that do you in. When the mercury's more of a dot than a dash, it's a whole different kind of a cold, of a world. Fingers and toes, for example, start to seem like one of Mother Nature's more idiotic inventions. (Ears, I'm nominating for the Darwin Awards.) Your cheeks sting and your eyeballs hurt and your car battery dies after all of seven minutes on the accessories setting. Unbelievable, I know. I had to try it three times before I got religion. (Did you know AAA offers a repeat offender membership? Just ask after "Plus".) The ubiquitous baby wipes I keep in my car have been useless for months now, icy and solid, one giant WIPE. The Scioto and Olentangy have both frozen over. We're not talking lakes or ponds here, people, but wide-necked, free-flowing, current-and-everything rivers. Frozen, for weeks on end. It's been nippy.Don't get me wrong: I am so not complaining. We need mufflers, for one thing, which relieves me no end. We can write in the snow as if it were sand, the manholes take on a particular charm, and I'm head over heels for our new outdoor freezer. Comes in so handy for cookies and crumb coats. The echinacea, just dusted, looks especially jaunty. The bittersweet that seemed an indulgence last Fall has paid for itself several times over in happy. It's only a wreath, tangled weeds, really, but it's just one more way we've made our own sunshine. Besides, summer will be here soon enough, and I'll take four layers and a coat over August, any day.
This is not to say we've been going it alone. Cold as bitter as this demands something sweet, which is why I ripped out this doozie, on arrival. It immediately brought to mind that grandpa up top there, and the beloved birthday pie my mom baked him each year. And what with his Ohio ancestors and February birthday, well, I took it as fate that I make this pie.
FYI? Fate, when she's smiling, is a dead-ringer for pudding pie. After licking my lips, I thanked my lucky stars, because while this pie looks pretty handsome, it tastes plain sublime. It might be the graham cracker crust that does it, with its signature crisp-crumbly buttered-up crunch. Probably the dark chocolate filling helps, too, so creamy and suave it only barely holds shape. I hardly need mention that billowing white; softly whipped cream seals any deal. I can't pinpoint the crux, exactly. I keep eating slice after slice, though, to try. Maybe you'll just trust me when I say it works. Even if, after fact-checking my memories, Sergeant Luckey turns out to have been born in June.
Details, details; I ignore them at will. And I suggest you do, too, when you scan the recipe. Because the ingredients read like a cardiologist's hit list, in quantities that nearly gave even me a coronary. But we don't eat like this every day. We don't eat like this every year. (Need I mention we had brothy veg soup for supper?) This isn't going to make it into your Lent rotation, but tuck it away, the time will come. Because the time always comes for guaranteed sweet endings, for some special, majestic, exquisite occasion. Like marking a seventeenth wedding anniversary, or celebrating a septuagenarian's birthday, or surviving your very first Ohio winter.
Please note, you will need two things for this pie: a fine-meshed sieve, for straining the filling; and four hours' lead time (plus the patience of a saint), for the pudding to chill.
Graham Cracker Crust:
9 graham crackers (1 sleeve, 5 ounces)
2 Tbl. sugar
5 Tbl. salted butter, melted and warm
Chocolate Cream Filling:
8 Tbl. salted butter, cut into 1/2" cubes and chilled
3 1/2 cups half-and-half
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
9 egg yolks
11 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tsp. instant espresso or coffee (optional)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Whipped Cream to Top:
2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbl. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Optional: bittersweet chocolate, to garnish
To Bake Graham Cracker Crust:
Place oven rack in middle position, and preheat oven to 325°.
Roughly break graham crackers, then pulverize to a fine powder in a food processor, about 30 seconds. Add sugar, and pulse briefly to combine. Add melted butter through feed tube in a slow, steady stream, pulsing as you go to combine, until mixture resembles the sand where ocean meets beach.
(Alternatively, to make crust by hand, place crackers in a heavy-duty Ziploc and steamroller them with a rolling pin, until they are powder. Pour crumbs into a medium bowl, stir in sugar to combine, and drizzle melted butter over all, stirring and mooshing until mixture resembles wet sand.)
Transfer the crumbs to a 9" glass pie plate. Spread lightly to distribute, then gently, firmly, press crumbs into bottom and up sides of pie plate, using the bottom of a measuring cup or small ramekin. It will remain very loose; aim for general coverage. The crust will firm up considerably as it bakes. Bake 15-18 minutes, until your kitchen is filled with good smells, and the crust is lightly browned. Cool completely while making the filling.
To Assemble Filling:
Heat half-and-half in a large (4-qt.) saucepan over medium-high heat, until it's steaming and just barely reached a simmer. Remove pan from heat. In a large bowl, whisk together 2/3 cup sugar and the cornstarch. Add egg yolks, and whisk until smooth. Slowly, steadily, drizzle hot half-and-half into the egg yolk-sugar mixture, whisking constantly, until smooth. You are tempering the egg yolks here, to prevent them from scrambling. Return tempered yolk/half-and-half mixture to the large saucepan, and heat over medium heat, stirring often, until bubbles rise to the surface and mixture is very thick, like pudding, 3-4 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and to the hot pudding mixture, slowly, in batches, add the 8 Tablespoons of cold butter and 11 ounces chopped chocolate, whisking until smooth. Whisk in instant espresso, if using, until smooth. Stir in the 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla.
Set a fine-meshed sieve over a deep bowl, and strain chocolate mixture. Pour pudding into strainer in batches, and press with a spatula to encourage. This is fussy but fast, a few minutes at most, and is key to achieving that sublime creamy texture. You'll see when your done all the inevitable cornstarch lumps and eggy bits left behind in the strainer, which is such a much better place for them than the pie.
Cover filling with plastic wrap, pressing down right to the surface to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.
To Assemble Pie:
When filling is firm, remove plastic wrap and stir until smooth. Spoon chilled filling into reserved, cooled crust, forming a dome in the center with a rubber spatula for a more polished look, or piling it high in the middle for a more casual affair.
In a large bowl, whip the cream, sugar and vanilla until soft but strong-ish peaks form. Dollop cream on top of filling, as much as you dare, and with a peeler, shave a little additional chocolate over all, if you fancy.