NEW ORLEANS — Each Christmas my grandmother, Baba, pours her heart, soul, and 40 pounds of pecans into nearly 100 pies to be hand-delivered to family and friends all over New Orleans.
Everyone in my neighborhood - from Donald the mailman to the grumpy Scrooge across the street - loves biting into one of her perennial pecan pies.
Anxious neighbors call weeks in advance to make sure they're still on her gift list: "Mrs. Mamie, are you baking those delicious pecan pies this year? You won't forget about me now, will you?"
With its buttery, cream-cheese crust and sweet filling, her pecan pie has made her a local legend. And although they are scrumptious, I think people just enjoy a visit from her during the holidays.
"Everyone is so good to me all year long, I like giving something back," she says. Baba started baking pies almost 60 years ago when she owned Weilman's Bakery in an old section of town. When it closed back in 1973, people begged her to make more pecan pies.
Since then, two weeks before Christmas her kitchen becomes a bakery, where butter coats the telephone receiver, pecan shells cover the floor (she cracks each nut by hand), and her pie crusts are stacked to the ceiling.
My poor mother, who usually gets to clean up, says the mess is a "royal holiday nightmare." And if you make the mistake of walking into the kitchen while my grandmother is baking, be prepared to be put to work.
"Look here, sonny boy," she tells me. "Put the pies in those boxes and load them in the car, you're going to help me make deliveries." "But it's Christmas Eve, Baba," I quickly reply, looking for an out.
But no lazy grandson is going to interfere with Baba's Christmas spirit. So off we go, in her beat-up old Pontiac Bonneville, singing carols and sampling a bit of pecan pie along the way.
At each stop she is greeted by eager recipients who can't wait to get their paws on a pie. Most of them open the box to breathe in the sweet pecan freshness. Some are even bold enough to break off a bit of the cream-cheese crust and pop it in their mouths. I don't blame them.
"Now, you wait and share that with the rest of your family. And I better not hear that you ate it all by yourself," she scolds.
If you're one of the few people not on my grandmother's pie list, here's her recipe so you can bake your own. You might want to make a few extras for friends and family - maybe even one for a grumpy Scrooge across the street.
Mrs. Mamie's Pecan Pie
1 cup brown corn syrup
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup pecan halves
1/3 cup shredded coconut (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl, mix together corn syrup, sugar, eggs, butter, salt and vanilla. Stir in pecans (and coconut if you wish). Pour mixture into 9-inch pie crust. Bake 50 minutes. Test with toothpick or knife - if the top cooks before the center and bottom, cover with aluminum foil and continue baking.
Let cool. Top with whipped cream flavored with vanilla and/or sugar.
1 cup flour
1 3-ounce package of cream cheese
1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons of softened butter
Mix all ingredients together, form a ball, and chill for two hours. Roll out and shape to fit bottom of a 9-inch pie pan.