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white chocolate-peanut butter pie

The summer I was seven, I spent two weeks with my grandmother at her home in Pennsylvania, where my dad had grown up with her and his three brothers. I remember one of my uncles driving me all to her house from ours in South Carolina in his big truck. She owned Shetland Sheepdogs - Shelties, we affectionately called them - which she bred and showed. My two favorites were Tristan, with his vanilla-caramel-and-chocolate fur and easy grin, and Brendan, whose black-and-white coloring always made me think of Oreo cookies. My grandma had a wall of brightly colored show ribbons in the living room. I loved to stroke the smooth, shiny fabrics and talk to my grandma while she drank milky tea in the adjoining kitchen. One of my other uncles lived with her through all of his adult life; he was rather quiet and wore heavy flannel shirts and, habitually every morning, ate exactly two toaster waffles drowned in thick blueberry syrup. He spent a lot of time tending to the dogs. The house had a particularly comforting smell to me - a combination of dog fur, musty basement, and acrid wood smoke from the double-sided brick fireplace. I felt at home there.

One day my grandma took me to a dog show. I don't recall watching her participate in any of the events, but instead I have a distinct memory of being allowed to wander around the food stands while I looked after one of her dogs. As I held the leash tightly in one hand, I managed to purchase and eat a chocolate-peanut butter ice cream cone. To this day, it is one of my best food memories. Two scoops of perfectly creamy milk chocolate ice cream were swirled with smooth, sugary peanut butter layer, creating pleasantly grainy little nubs of peanut butter throughout the mixture; all of it was perched on a dainty sugar cone. The smooth texture of the ice cream, the crisp crunch of the cone as it shattered slightly with every bite, was absolute bliss. I believe that so many of our adult preferences correlate to what we were exposed to as children, and that a lot of our likes and dislikes are directly related to whether or not those childhood experiences were negative, or positive.

A few years ago I recreated a fairly close version of that ice cream, and I'm not sure why I haven't made it again since. Yesterday was my birthday; I decided to make myself a a birthday pie, and as I was developing a recipe that encompasses two of my all-time favorite ingredients - white chocolate and creamy peanut butter - I thought of that long-ago dog show and ice cream cone. The memory made me smile as I thought about the factors that are important to me in a cold pie. I like a really thick, sweet-and-salty graham crust, toasted in the oven just until light golden brown. A light and airy mousse-like filling is a must; I always strive for clouds of filling as opposed to a concoction that's too heavy on the palate. Lastly, I don't like anything crunchy in the filling or toppings that can distract from the sublime creaminess of the entire pie.

My children decided that I was really lucky to have my birthday fall on a Friday this year, since it would automatically coincide with our weekly indoor family camp-out. My husband sweetly picked up a couple of pizzas and some wine, then blew up the air mattresses in our living room. Before the kids got home from school, I eagerly cut into the chilled pie, watched as the too-soft pieces fell apart and then sadly spooned the mess into small jam jars. It was delicious - sweet, salty, creamy, fluffy, with the faintest light crunch from the toasted graham crust - and after a few more hours in the refrigerator it did firm up properly, much to my relief.

In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I crept into the kitchen for another sliver of pie and a glass of milk, which I ate while sitting in the dark on my air mattress. Exhausted, I lay down again and kissed the upturned nose of my youngest daughter who was nestled against me. I watched her eyelids flutter as she slept; I reached out and held her tiny fingers, listening to the odd chirps of raccoons roaming around uninvited in the moonlight. I thought about my grandma, who passed away unexpectedly on my 11th birthday. I thought about my children and how much she would have liked them. I thought about her home and the dogs and how many years it has been since I visited the old property. I wondered about the family who lives there now. I thought about the upcoming holidays and how the shift in seasons always makes me think of those long drives north to Pennsylvania. I sighed and held my daughter's hand across the gap in our mattresses, and closed my eyes.

White Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pie
Yields: 8-10 slices
A thick, sweet-and-salty graham cracker crust filled with fluffy white chocolate-peanut butter mousse, drizzled with white chocolate ganache, topped with freshly whipped cream, and lightly dusted with cocoa powder. The peanut butter filling has an unexpected tang from the addition of sour cream.

Graham Crust:
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (do this in a medium-sized heat-proof bowl in the microwave)
14 full graham cracker sheets, very finely crushed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place a 9-or-10" pie plate on a large rimmed baking sheet. Coat the pan lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Set the baking sheet aside.

Add the crushed grahams, sugar, and salt to the melted butter. Stir well to combine all of the ingredients until the mixture resembles wet sand. Dump into the prepared pie plate and push evenly into the bottom of the pan and up the sides. You can use the bottom of a small glass to gently press the crust into the pan.

Put the baking sheet in the oven and bake the crust for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheet a couple of times during baking. Don't overdo it; just look for a light golden brown crust color, and it's done. Let the crust cool completely while you're preparing the filling.

White Chocolate-Peanut Butter Filling:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
8 oz cream cheese, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
2 heaping tbsp sour cream
1/4 cup melted white chocolate chips, cooled slightly
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp coarse kosher salt

With an electric mixer, whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks, then transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and peanut butter on medium speed for a minute until combined. Add the remaining ingredients and beat on medium-high speed until the mixture is smooth, light and fluffy.

Using a spatula, gently fold the whipped cream into the peanut butter mixture. Do this in two or three additions, so you don't deflate the cream too much.

Pour the filling into the completely cooled crust, and use a small metal spoon to gently smooth the filling evenly into the crust. Refrigerate the pie for at least 6 hours or until well chilled and firm, before topping with the ganache and cream.

White Chocolate Ganache:
3-4 tbsp white chocolate chips
A splash of heavy cream

Melt together in a small bowl in the microwave for 20 seconds, then stir and melt again for another 10-20 seconds. Stir until very smooth.*

*White chocolate has a tendency to seize up and separate from the cream when melted this way, but I've found that if I stir the mixture really well and add a bit more cold cream as I'm stirring, I end up with a smooth, non-grainy ganache.

Drizzle the ganache over the top of the chilled pie, and pipe with whipped cream if desired (1 cup heavy whipping cream + 2 tbsp granulated sugar whipped in an electric mixer until it forms stiff peaks). A light dusting of cocoa powder adds a simple and pretty finishing touch.