If you come to my house for dinner, you’ll eat well, but you’ll eat late. No matter what preparations I make in advance, I cannot seem to get food on the table in a decent amount of time. We’ll have fun, we’ll talk and laugh, I’ll offer you an appetizer and something to drink while I sauté and chop, and you might even get conscripted to grate cheese or toast croutons — but dinner won’t be ready anytime soon.
Most evenings, we’re in no hurry, and it’s not a problem. Last night, it was a problem. First born’s birthday meant a table full of folks were on hand to help us celebrate, including a rare appearance by one grandfather who is as famous for his punctuality as I am infamous for my lack of same. Tensions were high. I worked all day on food prep, determined that this night I would be on time, and by 6:45 p.m., dinner seemed under control. Five pork tenderloins roasted in the oven, wrapped in foil and placed there at staggered times to reflect variations in their weight. A doubled batch of macaroni and cheese bubbled away in another oven, and the salad was already on the table, tongs set just so, next to fresh buttermilk dressing. Guests were enjoying cucumber dip and chips along with Midori sours, First born’s favorite cocktail. Two chocolate pies, First born’s requested “cake,” sat on the counter under swirls of golden meringue, awaiting candles. This was the night I would rehabilitate my reputation.
I asked Husband to check the temperatures of the tenderloins as I washed pans. We have to be at 160 degrees, I said. He announced the numbers after each poke of the digital instant thermometer: “74. 75. 80. 72.” His tone was dour; he, too, is no fan of making his father wait. I was too horrified to listen for the last number, and I shoved the pan of meat back in the oven and tinkered with the roast settings. Oh, my. A range of unacceptable possibilities crossed my panicky mind. Was trichinosis eradicated in this country? Did I have enough Bronco Bob’s Raspberry Chipotle Sauce to cover the raw centers? Could we reverse the order of dinner and have pie first while the meat finished cooking?
Ultimately, I squashed the self-serving thoughts and kept roasting. Family members, eyes wide with trepidation, circulated through the kitchen periodically to check on progress. I shook my head grimly. My father-in-law wandered through, newspaper in hand, and kept moving. After 20 minutes I couldn’t stand the tension anymore and took the pork out of the oven. Stabbing each tenderloin with the thermometer, I was incredulous: 195, 188, 192 degrees — and climbing fast.
Husband had checked the meat with the thermometer set on Celsius. Dinner was ready more than 20 minutes ago. Oh, my.
Where before there was wait, now there was hurry. We slung platters, sliced bread, and filled water glasses in record time. Dinner’s ready, I announced gaily, like it wasn’t an hour late. We gathered, we said grace, we clinked drinks. The worst was over, and I was beginning to relax. A sweet little boy at the table asked what was on the platter in front of him. My father-in-law, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, answered, “Old, dead pig.”
By the way, Bronco Bob’s Raspberry Chipotle Sauce is a great cover for overcooked pork.
Chocolate Meringue Pie, adapted from a recipe of my mother-in-law Shirley Hale, who got it from her sister Elaine Bassett. Their mother Jessie Hefner also was an expert chocolate pie maker. Shirley made this pie often for family events, to both my daughters’ delight. It’s delicious. First born’s request that I make this for her birthday was a reflection of her love for this pie and for her grandmother.
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons natural, unsweetened cocoa powder
3 large eggs, yolks separated from whites
1/2 cup evaporated milk (traditionally Pet Milk)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (The original recipe specified a “walnut-sized piece.”)
1 fully-baked 9-inch pie crust shell (Homemade is best!)
Meringue (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Combine the sugar, flour, and salt in a saucepan. Add the cocoa powder to the mix through a sieve or fine mesh strainer. Whisk together thoroughly.
In a measuring cup, beat the egg yolks together with the evaporated milk. (Save the egg whites for meringue.) Add the yolk mixture to the dry ingredients, and mix well. Pour in all of the whole milk, whisking to combine. Set the pan over medium-low heat, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens to a loose pudding consistency. Remove from heat, and stir in the vanilla and butter. Let cool for a few minutes, then stir again and press a layer of waxed paper or good-quality plastic wrap against the surface of the chocolate filling to prevent a skin from forming while you make the meringue.
Meringue (adapted from a recipe in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, by Marion Cunningham, © 1984 by Marion Cunningham, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
5 egg whites (add 2 more to the three saved from the filling recipe)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a standing electric mixer or a large heat-proof bowl if you are using an electric hand-mixer. Choose a saucepan in which the bowl will fit in the top like a double-boiler, and pour water into the saucepan to a depth of about an inch. Make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat, and place the bowl containing the egg white mixture into the top of the saucepan. Stir constantly for about 20 seconds, until the sugar dissolves completely and the mixture becomes slightly warm. (Test with a finger.) Transfer the bowl to the electric mixer outfitted with a whisk attachment, and beat at high speed until the meringue forms and holds a peak, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Don’t overbeat, or the meringue will be too stiff to spread.
Finishing the Pie
Remove the waxed paper or plastic wrap from the still-warm chocolate filling. Scrape into the fully-baked pie shell, leveling the top. Dollop the warm meringue carefully over the chocolate filling, spreading it from edge to edge to cover the top completely and making sure that the meringue sticks to the pastry. Make pretty swirls and curls in the meringue with the back of a spoon.
Bake the pie in the preheated oven just until the meringue attains a golden hue. Keep an eye on this process, as it will only take a few minutes, and the meringue is easily burned.
Transfer the pie to a rack to cool completely before serving. Chocolate filling will continue to firm as it cools.