Sometimes a Cactus

Family, food, travel, other obsessions.

A pie crust (and a grandma) for the ages

One of Hal’s favorite sayings is “I like pie.” One of mine could be “I like pie crust.” I never mind a good filling, but I think of it mostly as what I have to have to justify the crust. One of my favorite childhood indulgences were the little cookies my grandma and mom used to make with leftover pie crust dough, rolled out into a messy circle and cut into squares, then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I burned my tongue on them almost every time, since I couldn’t be bothered to wait for them to cool. Worth every blister.

I’ve experimented over the years with a few different pie crust recipes, but I’ve never strayed for long, always returning to Grandma Clara’s recipe. You can read about the chemistry of pie crust herehere, and here. Not sure what the chemical magic is in Grandma’s recipe, but it is moist and so easy to work with. If it ever breaks, it just takes a pinch to put back together. I suspect the real magic was Grandma herself.

The magic started early for Grandma. Here is the image of her, taken around 1903, that looked down on me from our living room wall while I was growing up. The original is about 20×24 in a massive, gold-leafed frame. As a girl I could never get over those impossibly tiny boots.

I’m sure Grandma had a big pie repertoire, but the only pie I remember her making when I was growing up was lemon meringue. She used a packaged cooked lemon pudding as the filling, which resulted in a nearly flourescent yellow middle for the pie, topped with her effortless, golden meringue.  I can still picture her stirring the filling on the stove in our kitchen during the annual winter-time visits she and Grandpa made to Arizona, their trailer in tow so they could retreat at night, after loving on us all day long.

Tempe, Arizona, 1972

Mesa Temple Grounds, March 1972

Grandpa Vic and Grandma Clara, 1972, in a portrait taken for their 50th anniversary

Dad told us that Grandma made pies every few days when they were growing up in their little town, putting some just about every day into the steel lunch pail my Grandpa Victor took with him into the coal mine.

She usually put two pieces of pie in; Grandpa would eat one at work, the other he left as a treat for my dad and his little brother Ross to discover as they met him at the end of the day and carried his lunch pail inside for him.

Grandma, my dad, on the left, and Uncle Ross, ca. 1941

Wouldn’t you save an extra piece of pie for these cowboys?

I love the thought of Grandma and Grandpa’s little scheme, and of the delight of two little boys at finding that tasty triangle waiting for them, day after day, as if each day were the first. I also marvel at Grandpa’s ability to resist eating the second piece himself, day after day. I wouldn’t have been so strong.

Grandma died in 1994 (her funeral was 18 years ago yesterday), but her pie crust has been an enduring connection to her over the years. I’ve long since memorized the recipe. No one seems to have a copy of it in her handwriting, but I can imagine it in her distinctive, shaky script, the product of having been forced to write with her right hand as a schoolgirl, even though she was a natural southpaw (like Dad and me).

Grandma’s famous Cinnamon Roll recipe

Although I don’t need the pie crust recipe any more, I still hear the words from it whenever I make it: “Add liquids all at once. Dough will be quite moist.”

It’s true—it’s almost too sticky to handle at first.

But just a few slaps on a flour-covered surface, and its perfection takes shape.

If Grandma were here, we’d roll out the dough together and talk. It’s been a long time; we’d have a lot to catch up on. We’d remember some of our adventures together, like her trip with Mom to visit me in Berlin, two months before the Wall fell, when she was 89.

I’d tell her that if either of the boys had been a girl, we would have named them Clara Agnes. And that would probably make her laugh, since she told me once that she never really liked her name. Then I’d have to ask her how Aunt Aggie is doing.

Since we never had a girl, I’d ask her for advice about raising boys and tell her how much I love mine.

I’d tell her what a gifted, patient, interesting man I married, and that he was totally worth the wait, even though it meant having her miss out on meeting him or him meeting her. I’d tell her that his eyes are as blue as hers.

I’d tell her how much I enjoy baking for people I love, just like she did. And I’d tell her that because I like her pie crust so much, I’ve started making little hand pies, since it doubles (maybe triples!) the crust-to-filling ratio over regular pie. She’d ask me what a hand pie is, so I’d show her.

First, I find a round form, 4-5″ in diameter. I use this canister lid.

Next, I roll the dough out to about 1/4″ thickness and cut out rounds.

Then I dollop about a teaspoonful of filling on one side. It’s cherry today.

Then I fold them shut. See how easily that moist dough pinches together?

And my top-secret crimper is just a run-of-the-mill can opener.

I cut a little steam vent in the top and slather them with an egg wash.

Then I sprinkle them with a little coarse-grained sugar…

…and pop them in the oven—on parchment, since the filling often bubbles out.

And this is what we get:

Just look at those flaky layers.

Grandma and I would laugh while we talked and baked. She had a wonderful laugh. Then we’d sit down to one (or two) of these little pies and a cup of her favorite beverage, which is making a comeback, it turns out.

And while we were talking, my boys would charge in from the yard, head straight for the cooling rack, and help themselves. And I’d say, “Boys, this is my Grandma Clara. I’m so glad you finally get to meet her.”

And Ted would take pictures of it all so we’d never forget a second of it.

Click here for Grandma Clara’s Pie Crust recipe.


12 comments on “A pie crust (and a grandma) for the ages

  1. Cuz Craig
    April 7, 2012

    Holy memory lane Batman! I waited until this morning to check out your new post. Good thing – since I would have been crying my eyes out at work instead of here in the privacy of my home this morning. What a beautiful tribute to Grandma Christensen. I love your writing, Kirsten.

    I was always told that Grandma got up at 4 every morning to bake Grandpa a whole pie that he would take to the mine and share with buddy, Adolph Cantos, and others. Kenilworth was such a great place to visit. Fantastic memories.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

    • sometimesacactus
      April 9, 2012

      Love hearing what you and others remember about Grandma and Grandpa. Bet we could put quite a storybook together.

  2. Jackie
    April 8, 2012


    What a lovely post about Grandma. I can almost hear her saying: Good night! or “Oh Murder”.

    I am so happy Craig introduced me to your blog. I look forward to perusing your posts to get a glimpse of your life.

    Thanks again for this post. What a beautiful family you have and you look amazing!

    • sometimesacactus
      April 9, 2012

      Jackie! So great to hear from you. Craig sent me the link to your blog, too. Loved seeing you and finding out what you’ve been up to.

  3. paul
    April 8, 2012

    Hello cousin in law. This post sent Craig on the sob train to tear town. I understood. Your writing almost made me cry and I had no background. I look forward to reading your future blogs.

  4. Cheryl
    April 9, 2012

    I was always jealous of our Arizona cousins that got all that extra time with Grandma! I loved reading what you wrote! She did love her family, the whole bunch of us! There is so much to miss about her! It still makes me happy to think of her (and Grandpa—-he taught me how to tell time).
    I loved seeing those old pictures too!

    • sometimesacactus
      April 10, 2012

      Hi Cheryl! We loved Grandma and Grandpa’s winter time visits so much! So nice to hear from so many cousins. We should have another reunion one of these years, don’t you think? 🙂

  5. Terry
    April 9, 2012

    Amazing tribute to Grandma, Kirsten. I attribute my being a spoiled finicky eater because grandma made me cookies (I suppose not just for me) and brownies and other treats without nuts.

  6. Debbie
    April 9, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. Russ wanted us to make the mini pies for home evening tonight and we did and talked about Grandma Clara. As with most things I bake, they didn’t turn out perfect, but I will do it better next time.

    • sometimesacactus
      April 10, 2012

      Glad you tried them out, Debbie! Nice way to think of her, no matter how they turned out. 🙂 Did you know that Grandma was in Alaska on a cruise when Russ was born? Dad had to track her down by phone while she was on the ship to tell her that she had a new grandson. She loved to travel!

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2012 by in Family, Food lust.
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