National Pi Day: My Aunt Jeanine’s Blue-Ribbon-Winning Pecan Pie


Pecan pie with caramel and chocolate smear
Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich

Happy National Pi Day!

I can’t say that I completely understand pi.  I know it’s an infinite number and it holds the key to some of the magical, mathematical mysteries of our universe, but don’t ask me to explain it to our 11-year-old.

What I do know is pie!  The kind you eat with a fork and sometimes a la mode.

When the folks behind the book, Modernist Cuisine at Home invited me to celebrate National Pi Day with a post of my favorite pie, I knew exactly which one I would choose.


My favorite vintage transferware pie plate with a recipe for pecan pie.  Very close to my Aunt's but not quite. Photo credit:   Rebecca Penovich

My favorite vintage transferware pie plate with a recipe for pecan pie. Very close to my Aunt Jeanine’s but not quite.
Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich


My mother’s sister, Aunt Jeanine, was a fabulous Midwestern baker of pies, cakes, bars, fudge and sweets and she loved to share them.  She and my mom would often compete (informally and with sisterly love) with each other to see who could best each other on the flakiest crust, the most crowd-pleasing taste combination, the fluffiest meringue, the most tender crumb.  Sometimes my mom won, sometimes Jeanine.  And they kept up the competition until my mother died in 2001.

Aunt Jeanine’s pecan pie always was a hit.  She even entered it in the pie contest sponsored by the local bank in her town in southern Illinois and took home the blue ribbon.  Believe it when I tell you that Midwestern ladies and gents are SERIOUS about their baking.

I treasure this splattered index card with Aunt Jeanine's recipe in her handwriting.  It continues on the back. Photo credit:  Rebecca Penovich

I treasure this splattered index card with Aunt Jeanine’s recipe in her handwriting. It continues on the back.
Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich


Every Christmas after my mom died, my Aunt Jeanine (in her late 70s and into her 80s) would make my husband 2 (count ’em, 2!) homemade pecan pies at Christmastime because he was crazy about them and pecan pie was his absolute favorite.  He lavished her with praise and honest gratitude and she just loved that.

She would package the pies in small pizza boxes that she made a special trip to the pizza parlor to get (yes, she still called it the pizza parlor).  Then she would carefully wrap the pies in newspaper, place the pies in the boxes with more paper, wrap the boxes in brown paper and ship them across the country to us via the U.S. Post Office.

This was an incredible effort for an elderly lady!  It would be an incredible effort for anybody (god, how I hate packing and shipping at Christmas; let Amazon Prime take care of it.)


Wish I had pictures to show you, but no, we gobbled up those pies all those years.  We always brought one to share with friends at parties and kept the other greedily for ourselves.  All of our friends who got a slice would wax poetic over ‘Aunt Jeanine’s Pecan Pie’ – not too sweet, not too thick, lots of pecans, and a damn good flaky crust, homemade.

Aunt Jeanine passed away this January.  I wrote about the pies for her eulogy and I thanked her for all the love and work she put into them and how grateful we were to receive them as a present.  It was her way of showing us how much she loved us and we knew it.

The funniest thing about her handwritten recipe for pecan pie is on the flip side of the index card for the crust, she writes on the top, “I don’t use a recipe!  Hope this is it, ha!”

She gives me approximations and feel – no measures.  Typical!  Okay, she and my mom are having a laugh.

For those of you who are searching for the perfect flaky pie crust and its many permutations, Modernist Cuisine at Home and their e-publisher, Inkling, have tested and re-tested classic pie crusts and custard fillings.

Their master pie crust is modernist in that it calls for the eggs to be cooked sous vide, a technique usually relegated to the kitchens of professional chefs.

I’m likely to try it, because I am in search of more pie crust instruction (since mom and Aunt Jeanine have left me wanting.)  But I must say that Aunt Jeanine swore her flaky, not-too-sweet-crust was due to vegetable shortening (i.e. Crisco in the blue can) and a light touch of the hand with your fingers dipped in ice water.

I loved what the Modernist Cuisine at Home had to say about National Pi Day: pie and filling possibilities are as “endless as pi’s digits.”


There is an end to pecan pie, as evidenced by this empty plate. But Pi (3.14…) is forever.
Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich


Cheers!  The world needs pie don’t you think?!

NOTE:   I just love pie and wanted to tell you this story about my Aunt Jeanine (1928-2013). Modernist Cuisine at Home publishers reached out to remind me it was National Pi Day and provided me with a link to their perfect pie crust test results.

Joe’s Favorite Oreo Ice Cream Cake


Some people are natural bakers.  They like the methodical approach proper baking requires:  careful measurement, exacting technique, and strict attention to time, temperature, and humidity.

I was never like that.  I was afraid to make bread because the yeast would never proof. About 10 years ago, I purchased a Julia Child limited edition Kitchen Aid stand mixer (part of a fundraiser for AIWF Friends of Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian) and vowed to try to be a better baker.

That is a funny way to start this post, however, because this recipe has little to do with baking!  Not only is this cake frozen but there is also very little homemade about it.  So why am I sharing it, you ask?  Because it is a favorite among children and my son especially requested it for his 11th birthday.  I also made it for Allison’s little girl’s birthday.  It is a popular dessert and quite easy.

You could go out and buy an Oreo Ice Cream cake from Baskin Robbins or the grocery store but this semi-homemade one is much better than those.  The cookies and ice cream taste really fresh.



Cookies and milk, anyone?
Photo credit: Allison Beuker Photography

I pulled this recipe from The Kitchn blog, an excellent resource and one I read frequently.

Here is the original recipe which I adapted just slightly.


  • One 14.3-ounce package Oreos (regular/original), about 36 cookies, reserve 8 for garnish
  • One 15.25-ounce chocolate cake mix (I used Betty Crocker’s Triple Chocolate Fudge, baked as directed on the box.  You will need 3 eggs, 1/2 C. vegetable oil, and 1 1/4 C. water)
  • 2 quarts vanilla ice cream, very soft
  • 1/2 cup chocolate sauce, plus 3 T. for drizzling (Hershey’s Syrup works just fine)

Prepare a 10-inch springform pan by lining it with plastic wrap (bottom and sides).

Bake the chocolate cake as directed on the box. (Or you could buy a cake if you want to keep it really simple).


Who wants to lick the beaters? Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich.

Who wants to lick the beaters?
Photo credit: Rebecca Penovich

Roughly chop or crumble the Oreo cookies into quarters or smaller bite-sized bits. (I put the cookies in a gallon-size Ziploc bag and go over them with a rolling pin.) Crumble the cake into a large bowl, and stir in about 1/3 of the crumbled sandwich cookies.  Add  1/2 C. of chocolate syrup to the cake and cookie mixture.

Bake cakes in 9-inch rounds. Photo: Rebecca Penovich.

Bake cakes in 9-inch rounds.
Photo: Rebecca Penovich


Dump in about 2/3 of a quart of very soft vanilla ice cream, and stir gently but thoroughly until the cake and ice cream are well-combined. Press this mixture into the bottom of the springform pan.

Cookies and cake!  What could be better?

Cookies and cake! What could be better?


In a separate bowl, mix the remaining 1 1/3 quarts vanilla ice cream with the remaining 2/3 of the crumbled cookies.  Press this on top of the cake mixture in the springform pan; it will come nearly up to the top of the pan.

Cookies and ice cream mixture.

Cookies and ice cream mixture.


Cover the cake pan and freeze for at least 4 hours, ideally overnight.

Smooth the top then it's ready to back in the freezer.

Smooth the top then it’s ready to back in the freezer.

When ready to serve, let the cake sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes, and run a knife around the inside of the cake pan. Open the springform mold gently; it should release easily from the slightly melted cake.  Pull away the plastic wrap.

Place cake on festive plate and garnish with the 8 reserved Oreos.  I stand them up on their side and place around the cake like a clock face.  Drizzle the Hershey’s syrup over the ice cream cake in a criss-cross pattern.  (Hold the syrup bottle high over the cake and move your hand back and forth quickly.  Pretend you are on Top Chef!)


Artful drizzle. Photo by Rebecca Penovich.

Artful drizzle.
Photo by Rebecca Penovich


Serve in wedges with ice cold milk.  Sing Happy Birthday!

Happy birthday to you!  Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!


Warning: Cookbook Rant Ahead!


Photo by Allison Beuker.


5 signs that the baking cookbook you are reading is terrible:

1) Comes with an insert from the publisher about all the errors, including inconsistencies in weights of flour and sugar (making every recipe you want to try involve a math problem); AND the recipe yields for no fewer than 5 recipes are incorrect; AND adjustments are required in technique for 2 recipes INCLUDING the basic vanilla buttercream that is a linchpin in most of the frostings.

2) Requiring a 6 x 3 round cake pan when the standard round pan in most all kitchens is 8″ or 9″. That might not be a big deal but the batter recipes are all formulated for 6″ and no notes about what to do volume-wise if you want to make a 9″ layer cake. Arrg.

3) The first step in the recipe is to look at ANOTHER cake recipe in the book and bake that and freeze it. Then the next 18 steps are make simple syrup, lemon curd, lemon buttercream, slice your 6″ cakes into 4 layers….(head spinning now.)

4) Most of the recipes require you to start 2-4 days ahead. (What?!)

5) List of NECESSARY equipment according to the REQUIRED reading in the intro includes: heavy-duty stand mixer w paddle and whisk attachments (check), microwave (check), medium and fine mesh sieves (well, one of of 2 check), bain marie (I can makeshift one, check), double-boiler (nope but could try to makeshift one), several heatproof rubber spatulas (have only 2, check), a supply of disposable cardboard cake boards (WTF!), a spackle blade (WTF!!), and the absolutely essential revolving cake stand with a note from the author that no way, no how will your cake look like the picture unless you have one of these to cut your layers and frost/spackle.

O good God–forget it!