The knife glides through the airy whipped cream and chocolate dusting, sliding down through the rich chocolate filling and meeting the small resistance of the light crust at the bottom of the pie plate. Carefully slipping a fork beneath the slice of pie, I lift it gently up, checking the edge of the wedge to see that it has a nice shape. Assured that it is presentation-worthy, I gently slide it onto a white plate. This is the easy part. I place the plate in front of my older brother and he eagerly sits up in his chair, fork in hand.
Combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cocoa in a saucepan.
The recipe book falls open to the page, the two open pages embalmed in sugar, water, and heavy whipping cream. I chip away at a spot of dried cream from the overzealous hand mixer that promised to be a five-speed appliance, but really only believes in the kind of speed that will send ingredients—without fail—onto nice shirts and dark wood cabinets. I should have the recipe memorized by now, but I still look each time. It was a Thanksgiving eve when my sister and I cooked one of these pies for the first time, carefully assembling the ingredients, leveling the pile of cocoa in the measuring cup with our fingers and worrying about whether we had put in both sugar and salt, or just salt twice. It was going to be displayed next to my mother’s famous chess pie, so it had to be both delicious and beautiful. My sister and I double-checked the ingredients for a third time, reading the checklist like pilots on the tarmac.
Stir in milk and egg yolks.
The milk swirls into the cocoa, sweeping up the glittering salt and sugar. With a twirl of a spoon, the components are mixed together, the cornstarch’s stubborn pockets broken up and the egg yolks disappearing into the blend. On Thanksgiving, my brother ate two slices of chocolate cream pie. As he ate the second, he remarked that it tasted as good as it looked. I apologized lamely for not knowing how to shave chocolate, wishing that I knew how to twist a chocolate bar into delicious brown curls that cascade, glorious and carefree, down the peaks of whipped cream. But he wasn’t thinking of his favorite birthday French Silk pie from the restaurant—I was.
Stir constantly over heat.
The spoon spins the chocolate milk mixture around and around the saucepan, and I try not to follow the clumps of undissolved cocoa with my eyes to avoid making the room spin, too. My feet ache from standing barefoot on the hardwood floor for hours and I find a rhythm in the constant rasp of the spoon along the bottom of the pan. Dad turns up the volume on the movie in the living room, and the soldiers on Gold Beach are pinned down by Nazi machine guns and the relentless scrape of cutlery. Christmas came, and he specially requested chocolate cream pie for the dessert gathering for our family and his in-laws. The chocolate shavings were still pathetic, but we didn’t take home any leftovers.
When boiling, add butter and vanilla.
The mixture suddenly turns into a boiling pudding, bubbles popping scalding chocolate into the air. When the butter touches the chocolate, it slips to the bottom of the pan and as it melts, the chocolate smooths into silk tresses. The vanilla blossoms over the stovetop as I stir it in, keeping the spoon in motion to avoid hot chocolate on my skin. It was my brother’s birthday, and chocolate pie was the only consideration for dessert. He didn’t want candles in it—he just wanted to eat it all. His wife wisely persuaded him against that course of action, but we let him take the rest home with him as his birthday present. It was always hard to give him presents, but he gave us both an enormous hug, holding the prized pie in one hand.
Pour immediately into baked pie crust. Cover with wax paper and wait to cool.
The pudding steams as I pour it into the flaky crust. When I put the wax paper over it, I poke it gingerly onto the chocolate with my fingers to keep from burning them. By now, the kitchen is filled with cocoa and vanilla. If it wasn’t the consistency and temperature of molten lava, we’d probably eat it right then and there. It was Thanksgiving again, but that time, my sister and I were the ones flying home. We didn’t have much time in the whirlwind of returning home, but I had promised chocolate pie for my brother. It was his reward for surviving to the fall break of his first semester of medical school and mine for living to Thanksgiving my first semester of graduate school.
Remove wax paper, top with whipped cream.
His birthday comes early in the year, when all of us are back to school and buried in schedules. For a few years now, he’s been too busy studying to celebrate. One year, my sister and I sent him a picture of a chocolate pie. I know the picture didn’t taste good, even if the chocolate shavings are perfect, but it let him know that there were still delicious things to look forward to when we saw each other again.
This year, my brother’s birthday falls during another busy time. We all decided to postpone the celebration until after the crazy schedules and busyness dies down, and I wondered how many more years would be like this one. Every year, he gets a little closer to finishing med school and I grow more and more proud of him. Someday, he won’t be too buried beneath textbooks and notes, too restricted by early hours and late nights to enjoy a birthday. Someday soon, he’ll be making a long-held dream come true: he’ll be doctor. But for this year, I’ll have to get creative to get a chocolate slice to him, to remind him that sweet things are ahead.
This post is dedicated to my great brother, who, I have no doubt, has many great adventures to come. Happy birthday!