ONE WAY OR another, holidays mean people and food. The expectations might vary, but they remain firmly in place. When dietary needs battle with family tradition, it can wreak havoc.
Growing up, Christmas dinner was abundant and rather formal, but the menu was inconsistent. A famous ham would be the focus one year; the next might feature a goose from one of Dad’s hunting trips. Within a few years of my brother and me moving out, Dad was struck with a motor-neuron disease that interfered with his ability to eat, among other things.
His struggle worsened in small increments every year, both in his ability to chew and swallow, and in how food tasted. Anything that wasn’t sweet was unpleasantly bitter or had no taste at all. Safe textures were severely limited.
There are endless reasons that holiday menu changes become necessary between years: cancer treatments that wreck taste buds; celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder or severe allergy; a loved one shifting to a plant-based diet. The trick is to embrace those adjustments, rather than fight them.
When I started hosting extended family meals for my in-laws, the list of dietary concerns exploded: Limit sodium and fat, exclude tree nuts, shellfish, gluten and alcohol — and serve fish as the main protein, to welcome the pescetarian. The menu takes time to develop, but almost everyone can enjoy almost everything. Dessert shifted from pie to a cookie plate that includes gluten- and nut-free choices. Salt gets passed at the table, rather than used much in cooking. Vegetables get roasted or shredded, not baked into rich gratins. The gorgeous Chinook salmon at the center of the meal? Everyone loves it, not just the pescetarian.
These smaller tweaks didn’t help my dad, so for that side of the family, I suggested we completely ditch the traditional meal in favor of a drastic reinvention. The stressful feast was reborn as a pie buffet for the last several years that Dad was with us.
This accommodated his need for sweetness and thick, smooth textures, and it was still highly celebratory. Someone always baked a quiche — a wobbly nod toward nutrition — but the remainder was sweet: Apple, pear, pumpkin, sweet potato, blueberry, lemon chess, the Milk Bar Pie and sour cherry streusel would rotate by whim, but the bourbon pecan pie was always present.
It’s what my niece baked when she attended her boyfriend’s family feast. It’s my husband’s favorite, and the one with a bare sliver remaining when it’s time to divvy up the leftovers. It’s the one that Dad loved, if the nuts were chopped just so. It’s also the one that I can’t eat, because I’m the one in the family with a tree nut allergy. I can bake it just fine, though, and so I do.
Bourbon Pecan Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
Use a mellow, sweet bourbon, like Woodinville Whiskey or Woodford Reserve.
2 cups pecans
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark corn syrup
6 tablespoons melted butter
3 to 4 tablespoons bourbon
One 9-inch pie shell, chilled
1. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Place one rack in the lowest position and one in the middle.
2. In a large skillet, spread the pecans in a single layer. Toast over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes, until fragrant and slightly darker — they burn easily, so pay attention. Remove the pan from heat and cool to room temperature. Using the flat of a large knife, coarsely break the nuts; the goal is to have lots of different sizes. Set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until blended. Stir in brown sugar and salt, then mix in the corn syrup. Add the melted butter and bourbon, stirring until liquids are completely blended. Fold in the chopped pecans. Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell.
4. Bake for 20 minutes on the bottom rack. Move to the middle rack, and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until the filling is set (it shouldn’t jiggle except in a small spot in the very center) but hasn’t cracked. Cool to room temperature.