Having been a “foodie” since the day I was born, Christmas is yet another holiday that centers on my most favorite thing in the world. To some, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, to many it’s also about the gathering together of friends and family, and to most it’s all about the Christmas presents – but for me personally, it’s always been and always will be about the food.
When I was little, going back to school after winter break meant telling all your friends what you got for Christmas. Most kids had a new coat, or a new bike, or maybe some ice skates. The kids would ask me what I got for Christmas and I’d say, “Chocolate Chip Squares, Broccoli Casserole, and Cassava Pie!” Of course I got presents too, but I’d often forget what they were by the time January arrived. The holiday food, however, was always fresh in my mind.
To make matters worse, the food we ate at our holiday meals was always considered “weird” to most of my friends. One part of my family heritage is Swedish and the other part is Bermudian – and for the icing on the cake, we were also vegetarian. To say we had an eclectic mix of food at the holidays would be quite the understatement.
Traditionally, holiday entrees are at least twice as difficult to make and at least five times as bad for you as the food you eat the rest of the year. This is why holiday food tastes so good, since the higher the level of difficulty and the higher the grams of fat and sugar in any particular dish, the higher my level of inner peace and happiness is after eating it. When I found my grandmother’s recipe for Cassava Pie, I looked at the ingredients and almost fainted; however, from my memory of what it tastes like, it’s worth every lap you end up having to run at the gym.
This recipe for Cassava Pie was passed down to my grandmother from her Aunt Daisy (I know because it’s written on the recipe), and it’s the traditional Christmas dish in Bermuda, where my grandmother and her family are from. My grandmother passed away in 1993, and since I had never paid attention to how she did the magic she did year after year, I had no idea how to go about making this dish. Cooking skills completely passed me by in the genealogical chain, and you know how good cooks are: they provide themselves “guidelines” for how to cook the dish, but they don’t literally write down every single thing. Since my sister was coming down for Thanksgiving, though, I thought it’d be a perfect time to test out the recipe. How hard could it be?
The recipe card calls for “farina,” which as every mother knows is a hot cereal given to babies. So my first question was how can it be “cassava” pie if it uses farina? I called my uncle (the last person I know of who has made this dish successfully) and asked him that very question, and the wisdom and depth of his answer was inspiring: “I don’t know; it just does.”
After that bit of wisdom, I decided I wanted to make it a “real” cassava pie so I went to my local international foods store (where I was stared down by every ethnic shopper as if I had two heads) and a helpful employee explained to me that cassava is the same thing as the “yuca.” Then he brought me over to the fresh produce section and showed me the long and skinny potato-looking things, which looked very intimidating. I asked him if they were also available frozen, and he showed me a freezer full of peeled cassava where I picked out a 1-pound bag. Then he showed me the powder version of the ground yuca root, tapioca flour. This confused me even more since I couldn’t understand how tapioca was the same thing as cassava, which is the same thing as a yuca. My brain was singing, “Here we go ’round the mulberry bush…”
I bought the bag of frozen cassava and called my mother excitedly about my find and to share my newfound knowledge about the cassava root. She told me she had watched my grandmother make this dish years ago and that she was certain she never once used a real cassava root, but instead used a bag of thick white powder. What that powder was, she could not say (thanks, Mom). Then I looked up cassava on Wikipedia and was scared out of my mind because it says if you don’t prepare it correctly, you can die of cyanide poisoning.
It was at this point I decided to go back to the farina.
The next hurdle was the recipe’s instruction to let the mixture “soak overnight.” The recipe does not say if it can soak in the refrigerator, and my mother insists my grandmother’s version always sat on the counter overnight — not in the refrigerator. With all those eggs and milk? I just couldn’t do it like that, so mine soaked in the refrigerator. In the morning it was just as watery as it was the night before, with only a small portion of the liquid seemingly absorbed by the cereal. Since I never watched this dish being made, I have no clue about what the consistency of the mixture should be, so I continued as if it was correct.
The mixture was so watery there were no “layers” to speak of once it was in the baking dish, it was all just looking like a soup. This “soup” was almost to the rim of the baking dish so I had visions of it spilling over and destroying my oven. Luckily that didn’t happen, but it did get close. After cooking for the allotted time, there was still a lake of liquid in the center of the dish, and most of the vegetarian chicken had started to burn. When I cut into it, new [unwanted] layers had formed, with the farina on the bottom, then a layer of watery egg in the middle, and then the burnt vegetarian chicken on top. Oh yum.
I took the dish out of the oven, let it cool off, wrapped it up in foil, and sent it home to my father. He’s like Mikey; he’ll eat anything. For me, I’ll just stick to what I make best: reservations.
For anyone brave enough, here is my family recipe for our variation on the traditional Bermudian Christmas Cassava Pie, because I’m all about helping to spread holiday cheer (and waistlines):
1 lb farina/cassava
2 lbs diced vegetable protein (“FriChik” is our family-favorite)
1 qt 2% milk
2 C sugar
2 tsp salt
1/3rd lb melted butter
Mix together the farina/cassava, milk, sugar, salt, butter, eggs and spices, and let soak overnight. Spread half the mixture into the bottom of a greased rectangular glass baking dish, then add the diced meat-substitute as the middle layer, then spread the rest of the mixture on top. Bake at 375 for 1 hour, or until browned. Serve with gravy.
Good luck! If you have success, by all means share your secrets.