The dessert that saved my marriage

Christmas dinner was not Christmas dinner in our family without Annabelle's Christmas Pie. Forget the turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes, which we did. Our tradition was beef tenderloin, twice-baked potatoes, corn pudding, and cranberries. But my mother almost could have skipped the entrée and side dishes as long as she made her famous dessert.

In fact, I credit the pie with saving the holiday, if not my marriage, when my wife spent her first Christmas with my family.

It seems I had forgotten to tell her the menu. Snow had delayed our arrival at my parents' house in Cincinnati so that we got there as the yule meal was about to be set on the table.

We had no sooner finished blessing the food when my wife leaned over and whispered, in one of those spousal whispers that conveys more than you want to hear, "Where's the turkey?"

I whispered back, feeling caught between lives, "No turkey." She had the look of a child who had found coal in her stocking on Christmas morning.

I knew that my wife felt that beef tenderloin and the trimmings were draining the tradition from her Christmas.

What would she think, I wondered, when she eventually saw the ornamental citrus tree my mother kept in the living room? A holiday tradition in our family, it was decorated with Christmas lights and ornaments, and all the presents were arrayed around it.

While family members started on seconds, the anticipatory buzz about dessert began.

"Gotta save room for baked Alaska!" my father said more than once.

Because it wasn't really going to be baked Alaska, I thought I'd better head off my wife's expectations. Quietly I explained to her that it was Annabelle's Christmas Pie, my mother's special concoction of peppermint ice cream, fudge sauce, and meringue baked in the oven oh-so-briefly.

My wife gave me one of those hard-to-decipher "OK" looks.

Then the pie worked its holiday magic. My wife's fork glided through the thick wedge of layered rich, dark chocolate and pink ice cream flecked with red and green, which was topped with almond-brown meringue. She tasted Christmas. Each bite produced surprise and delight similar to opening presents under the tree.

That was 13 years ago. My wife has now made Annabelle's Christmas Pie one of our yule traditions. Beef tenderloin, however, didn't make the cut. If you celebrate at our house, you have turkey and all the usual trimmings. We have a traditional Christmas tree in the house, but the lemon trees in our Los Angeles backyard are strung with lights and hung with ornaments.

After my mother died, I became the "keeper of the pie." Her recipe - on a yellowed, ingredient-spattered piece of loose-leaf notebook paper - is carefully preserved. My siblings all have copies. It wouldn't seem like Christmas to any of us without Annabelle's Christmas Pie.

I make somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen pies for our California holiday celebrations each year. There's at least one for Christmas dinner, of course, but I also make them for parties and for New Year's Eve.

And I suspect my wife would have me making Annabelle's Christmas Pie for Valentine's Day, Easter, and the Fourth of July if peppermint ice cream were available for more than the few weeks before Christmas.

Annabelle's Christmas Pie

3 (9-inch) deep-dish frozen pie crusts
About 1/2 gallon peppermint ice cream, softened
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12-ounce) package semisweet chocolate chips
Meringue (see recipe at right)

Bake pie crusts according to package directions. (Be sure to prick holes in dough before baking.) Allow to cool to room temperature.

Line up baked pie shells on counter and add softened ice cream to each to fill about one-third of the shell, spreading it evenly. Place in freezer to let the ice cream harden again.

When ice cream layer is about frozen, mix sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips in a medium saucepan. Over low heat, stir constantly until chocolate melts. Remove from heat and allow to cool 5 minutes.

Remove pies from freezer and top each with a layer of chocolate sauce. Return to freezer to let harden. (It hardens quickly.)

Remove pies from freezer and add another layer of softened ice cream (to just below top edge of crust). Return to freezer to harden.

Remove pies from freezer and top with more chocolate sauce. Return to freezer. Once the filling is frozen, cover with plastic wrap. The pies can be prepared up to a week ahead. Just before serving, top with meringue and bake briefly (see meringue recipe).

Makes 3 pies.

Note: The chocolate sauce can be refrigerated and then reheated if you want to make the pies separately.

To make slightly different peppermint pies, put a layer of chocolate sauce on the bottom of the baked pie crust, chill; top with ice cream, freeze; top with chocolate sauce, chill; and finally, add another layer of ice cream. Omit the meringue.

Meringue

3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Note: This meringue recipe makes enough for just a single pie. If serving all 3 pies at once, make 3 batches of meringue, one after another.

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Place egg whites, sugar, and vanilla in a clean, dry mixing bowl. With electric mixer at high speed, beat until stiff peaks form.

With rubber spatula, transfer meringue from bowl to top of pie. Cover pie, sealing the edges.

Place pie in a preheated oven and bake 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

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