The Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., falls on May 4-5 (aka Cinco de Mayo). I’m not really swept up in the culture around the Derby, even though my mom lived in Lexington for nearly two decades. In my most cynical moments, I can’t understand the big to-do around a 2 minute race.
But I admit, I cried through “Seabiscuit,” “Secretariat,” and “War Horse.” There is something about these majestic, beautiful, intelligent creatures in motion that stirs the human spirit, no matter how intellectual one becomes about the trappings and heartbreak of betting on a horse.
What I do love without question is Kentucky Derby Pie – gooey pecans and chocolate over a buttery crust and smothered in a dollop of fresh whipped cream. With the Derby falling on Cinco de Mayo this year, I got to thinking about the perfect marriage: Mexican chocolate and buttery pecans.
Unlikely companionship is a theme that runs through all horse stories – whether it is boy and not-yet-tamed horse, or an injured, combative horse and a reassuring goat friend, or a frail girl and a four-footed protector. These mismatched pairs make up the most profound friendships.
My dad, who loved Arabian horses since his father first introduced them into his life in a paddock in Illinois, once pointed out a beautiful relationship that happens at the Kentucky Derby. It occurs between the calming horses and the racing thoroughbreds. You may have never noticed them – the smaller, quieter horses that are walking beside the high-strung thoroughbreds being guided to the starting gates.
Through the roar of the crowd, the adrenaline rush from seeing jockeys astride other horses, the booming loudspeaker, and the sight of a long untouched track stretching out into the distance, the sleek horses make their way to the starting line. As they jerk their bridles and roll their eyes to take in the scene they periodically touch noses and breathe into the nostrils of their gentle companions ambling alongside, a presence that assures them they are safe.
These nameless horses are practically invisible otherwise. They aren’t even “also rans.” But their meekness is a strength and beauty all its own.
I’m so grateful to my dad – a man whose strength also lay in his quiet meekness – for pointing this out to me.
And so here is another surprising pairing that will impress you. A touch of cinnamon and cayenne pepper in a Kentucky Derby pie. After the sweetness, a lingering warmth tips a sombrero to a really, really fast race and a Mexican victory for democracy over France. Somehow it works.
Fair warning: If you set these bars out, there’ll be a real stampede to your side. So hold on for the ride of your life.
Kentucky Derby Bars for Cinco de Mayo
For the crust:
1 package graham crackers, crushed (2 cups crumbs)
5 tablespoons of butter
For the bars:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup shelled pecans (or walnuts), chopped
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Pound the graham crackers inside their package into crumbs using a rolling pin. Empty into a large bowl, crush any remaining large pieces with the bottom of a jar or mug. Stir in 5 tablespoons of melted butter. Press crumbs into an 8″ x 8″ glass baking dish.
In a large bowl mix sugar and flour. Stir in eggs, butter, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and vanilla. Add walnuts and chocolate chips and stir until combined.
Spread mixture evenly over graham cracker crust.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until it has set, there should be a slight gloss to the crust. Remove and allow to cool completely. The bars will be soft and chewy but not runny.
Cut into squares and serve.