Friday, December 21, 2007

Lyssa&Paige's Crispy Pumpkin Pecan Spice Bars

One and a half years into my service, living in Georgia has simply become the norm. Things that would’ve shocked or bewildered me eighteen months ago have ceased to shock or bewilder me. The same goes for homesickness. While I still certainly miss my family members, friends, and home, I just think about my homesickness less than I did when I first arrived.
But around the holidays that changes a little bit. This holiday season, just like last year, there was a sharp spike in my homesickness line graph. And of course this year we had the added stress and frustration of being on a standfast (not being able to leave our sites because of the political situation) for several weeks before Thanksgiving. So when Thanksgiving actually came, I was with my host family at a wedding in my host mother’s hometown of Akhaltsikhe, not at dinner in Tbilisi with my friends. So that was a little depressing, though my thoughtful friends did call toast to me (we’ve become so Georgian) and say happy thanksgiving. And I got to have long conversations with my parents who called, so that helped a lot too. It also helped that my host aunt is a really good cook and has a heated house.
But the next weekend we had our Peace Corps Thanksgiving on the last day of our safety and security conference. We were the only guests at this newly renovated lakeside tourist compound in Bazaleti, north of Tbilisi. The hotel staff was kind and patient enough to let us invade their kitchen to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. It was quite a meal too. Our director secured turkeys and hams for us, and got ahold of some canned pumpkin so I could make pumpkin pie.

Lyssa and I just getting started on the pie, with Amy looking on.
(Just to warn you, the rest of this entry will be exclusively about the pumpkin pie…)
I really outdid myself at Thanksgiving last year, I must say. I made a delicious pumpkin cheesecake that was quite a hit, although some people took really big pieces and there wasn’t enough to go around. I barely got a piece of it myself, but the very thoughtful G5 Wendy Woods snatched one for me. Some people were expecting pumpkin cheesecake again this year but, since I wasn’t cooking at an expat’s house with a drop bottom pan and I couldn’t find cream cheese, it wasn’t possible. So I volunteered to make pumpkin pie instead. That’s when things started to go wrong. A certain other volunteer (RYAN BRINKLEY NICKUM) already mentioned this mishap on his blog, but I’ll tell my own account here.
First, I didn’t think to buy pie pans before we left Tbilisi. So I had to make four pies in one on a big sheet pan, which was fine, we just had to rename them Pumpkin Pie Bars. I should mention here that Lyssa Haldeman volunteered to be my sous chef, and did a splendid job.
So I’m starting on the crust, Lyssa’s uncanning the pumpkin, and I’m not sure exactly what happened next. Somebody ground the cloves for us and had them in a bowl. Somebody else thought that the bowl of cloves was ALL OF THE SPICES (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves) mixed together, and tossed it into the pumpkin pie filling. That’s THE WHOLE bottle of cloves. When the error was realized, we quickly added more cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pumpkin spice to try and cover the clove taste. It helped…a little. Cloves are quite strongly flavored, you know. But they weren’t bad just…spicy. Thus the second renaming of our dessert, “Lyssa and Paige’s Pumpkin Spice Bars.” Then Catherine told us she had some leftover pecans and said we could use them to further distract from the cloves. So Lyssa and I sprinkled pecans over the top of the dessert. Hence the third name, “Lyssa and Paige’s Pumpkin Pecan Spice Bars.”

Nicholas trying not to look horrified by what we've done to the pie thus far.
Then just as we were about to put it in the oven, I realized that I’d forgotten to grease the pan. Oops. At this point, it only seemed rational. Lyssa and I left the crowded kitchen a bit flustered, and other volunteers said they’d bake it for us. But, in the natural order of things, about a third of the pie got burned. When the volunteer apologized I told her not to worry because that was about the least offensive thing that happened to that poor pie that day. So in its final incarnation, it was “Lyssa and Paige’s Crispy Pumpkin Pecan Spice Bars.” And you know what? They weren’t bad.

Lake Bazaleti at sunset.
(All pictures courtesy of Julien Katchinoff)