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Coconut pie, almost like mom’s

Coconut Creme pie  for birthday dessert for Judith's Low Mileage Kitchen column. Photographed Wednesday February 27 2013. | Al

Coconut Creme pie for a birthday dessert for Judith's Low Mileage Kitchen column. Photographed on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:03AM

I don’t know when or why Coconut Pie became my Birthday Pie.

I remember that my mother made complicated pink and white checkerboard birthday cakes, multi-layer showstoppers, some with jelly beans on top if my birthday coincided with Easter, as it often did.

Maybe it was because March always was Birthday Month in our family. Blessed with plenty of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom had March birthdays, it meant that a special cake was part of a celebration almost every day during the month. I thought every family must have Birthday Month.

Although I was an only child, I was very generous with sharing my cake with everyone else. That’s because, without a doubt, hidden in the pantry there was a special birthday treat that was mine and mine alone.

Until she passed away at 95, and though her health prohibited her from doing many things, Mother still would pull a stool up to the stove and whip up a coconut pie almost every time I visited.

But — she never taught me how to make it. She claimed it was just something she did. I watched, but I never made one with her. I always thought I could do it if I needed to. I waited too long.

She did share an abbreviated description of the recipe with one of my friends. She cautioned to put in just “the right amount” of cornstarch, and not to make it too sweet. And she winked when she said that the intense coconut flavor was “helped along” by a drop or two of coconut extract that she kept tucked in the back of the cabinet.

I’ve search through all of the recipes she passed along to me, many for pie. There were butterscotch pies, chocolate pies, several lemon pies, but no coconut versions. I’ve checked every cookbook I have. Ten (yes, 10!) of those on my bookshelf are on the subject of pie alone. None have produced exactly what I remember.

Another friend often gifts me with a glorious coconut pie on my special day. It is light and sweet and delicious, and has the best meringue ever. But it’s not Mother’s.

Last week I was looking at a tin of sweetened condensed milk sitting on my counter. I’d needed only a bit from the can for something I was making, and now I had an almost full can waiting to be used for something else. For some reason, perhaps just because the Ides of March were approaching on the calendar, I thought of coconut pie.

So, with Mother’s cautions and tips in my head, I combined several of the available suggested recipes, stirred and whipped and made meringue peaks, all the while smiling at the memory of those years of Coconut Birthday Pie.

Coincidentally, March 14 is National ∏ Day. That unending numerical computation might have something to do with the number of pies I’ve made in my lifetime, or the number my Mom made for me. Or not.

In any case, I recommend we all celebrate Pi(e) Day together. Just don’t ask me to share mine.

Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago. Contact her at

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