A Pumpkin Pie for Grandma Yaya

November was a really weird month. I turned 30. My grandma passed away, and the next day, I went to a funeral for another relative and then rushed over to a funeral home to help plan my grandmother’s funeral and pick out her casket – all in the same day. I got the flu for the first time since high school. I hosted my first family Thanksgiving and it ended with a bang – and not the good kind.

My paternal grandmother passed away a few weeks ago from pneumonia complications at the age of 90, and I honestly didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was to accept it.  She started to show early signs of dementia about 5 years ago, and it really progressed.  She wasn’t really herself in her last couple of years. I somewhat felt like I had been slowly saying goodbye to her bit by bit when I visited her on weekends at her nursing home.  Watching her and my other grandparents slowly deteriorate has been one of the hardest things to deal with – it’s truly a slow burn that you never really get used to no matter how many times you see them.

We had a family viewing a couple of weeks ago to say goodbye before closing my grandma’s casket, so I tucked a letter and some family photos inside with her.  Writing it made me realize how much of the content in this blog (sass included) really all started with her.

Hi Yaya,

I honestly never expected that saying goodbye to you would be so hard.  It was heartbreaking to see you slowly lose the feistiness and spunk (that I am pretty sure I inherited from you) in your last years.  Selfishly, it wasn’t the way I wanted to remember you.  You always remembered who I was even if you weren’t completely sure where you were or what year it was, and I’m so thankful for that.

Thank you for all of the lessons you have taught me directly and indirectly.  A lot of who I am today is due largely in part to you.  “Use your head” and “that’s what you get” were two of your most simply stated but effective life lessons – ones I frequently find myself saying internally today.  Teaching me to be accountable for my actions was a big thing that dad instilled in me, and he definitely got that from you.

Thank you for inspiring me to learn to cook and bake because we all know I wasn’t going to learn from either of my parents.  When I was in middle school, we went out for a big family dinner at Benihana and you made a comment to me about how bland the food was (and you were right). You said you could make that shrimp the chef flipped into his pocket much tastier at home.  Sure enough, the next time I came over you invented what would become my favorite dish to eat at your house.  I miss that shoyu garlic shrimp and rice – it rivaled the shrimp trucks from Oahu.  Then it became a thing – if ever we ate somewhere, you just made it better next time I came over.  Some of my favorite memories with you are of the two of us making and decorating sugar cookies when I was in kindergarten and grade school.  I watched you make so many of my favorite things – I should have learned the recipes from you while I had the chance… especially the Yaya pumpkin or apple pie with the from-scratch crust my dad covets so much (sorry Dad).

Thank you for teaching me how to thread a sewing machine in high school. My friends loved those soft throw pillows that you taught me how to make my sophomore year. I think I must have made more than 20 and gave them out as Christmas gifts.  Leslie kept hers til college. It was pretty gross by then. That year was when I first went into a Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts store – it was the start of an expensive relationship.  That simple throw pillow lesson lit the fuse on what would become a slew of sewing and crafting projects over the years, including the puppets that inspired me to start chronicling all of my culinary and sewing adventures.  I am now just realizing as I write this that my blog should really have been dedicated to you for planting the seeds for so many of my creative outlets.  I wished I had learned to cook and bake sooner, so that I could have done it for you before you went to Keiro and helped you out more during holiday gatherings and weekends. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners would have been no match for the two of us… not that you weren’t already owning that area on your own.  It’s amazing how much I’ve learned to appreciate now what I so thoughtlessly took for granted at a younger age.

I can only hope that I can love Kevin throughout our upcoming marriage even half as deeply and devotedly as you loved Grandpa George.  I never got the chance to meet grandpa, and you didn’t talk about him much.  But seeing you honor him with food, tea, and flowers from your garden every single day, and annually at a formal service, for 30+ years after he passed showed that he was the one and only true love of your life.  I’m glad you will be together again both in spirit and in reality. We are burying you tomorrow with his ashes like you asked.

I am hosting my first family Thanksgiving this year, and I’m going to make sure to make a full pie (crust from scratch!) for the first time. It’s something I know won’t live up to yours, but I am going to try it anyway for you.

If Kevin and I decide to have kids, I promise to make sure they know who their great grandma was and to do my best to show and teach them as much as you’ve done for me.  I’m indelibly grateful for the three decades I had with you and will cherish those memories for the rest of my years.  You will always have a special place in my heart.

I miss you.  I love you. Rest in peace.

Her last wishes were “to be put in the ground as soon as possible with grandpa’s ashes, no cremation, no public viewing, and no cold storage”.  We were somehow able to turn everything around in seven days, having the funeral exactly a week from when she passed.  I also managed to catch Kevin’s flu in the process.  Listening to the reverend read the eulogy I wrote for my grandmother with the THICKEST of Japanese accents (my uncle Wallace was repeatedly called “Walrus”, “feisty” was “frizzafriz”, and “plethora” was “pridder”, etc.) while fighting off flu-ridden chills and aches was not exactly the perfect funeral I had romanticized in my head for her, but I think it ultimately was the intimate service she wanted.

I felt better after the funeral for about a day.  Then my flu turned into a full blown head cold with sinuses a’flowing.  I had 4 days to get rid of it because I was already signed up to host family Thanksgiving for my mom’s side of the family this year (my first time doing it), and there was no way I was going to cancel.  After all, I had just written to my grandma the week prior that I was going to do it and make that pie.  I wasn’t operating at 100% (still not there as of the writing of this post), but I SARS-masked up and cooked like it was nobody’s business.

Mask Up!
Mask Up!

I opted out of making the bird, but I think I came in pretty strong with almost everything else.  I made the same chicken apple sausage cornbread stuffing that I made last year, lots of various roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, my favorite kale salad, and more.  LOTS of recipes to follow in the coming weeks.  Add a dash of Thanksgiving Day family drama on top of the congestion and mourning, and viola – not the ideal first holiday meal I thought I’d be hosting. I did make that first pie. I’ve done miniature pie cookies in the past and cobbled together pre-made parts for an easy pie, but never made a full one from scratch.  I’d always found pies intimidating, but after my grandma’s passing, I decided I really needed to try it.  Her pies were infamous within the family and beyond.

I found a Martha Stewart recipe that sounded good with instructions for a supposedly “fool-proof” pâte brisée pie crust to go with it.  This “fool” (yours truly) managed to over-process the dough a wee bit, despite trying to do so less than what the recipe said, so the crust ended up being a little crumbly when I tried to roll it out.  The next time I make a pie, I’m not going to use a food processor.  It’s way too easy to over process the dough and end up with a crumbly crust that isn’t great for rolling out or creating that beautiful fluted thin crust that my grandma used to make.  Mark my words, the next time I make a pie, I’ll stick with my go-to “old faithful” pie crust recipe from Smitten Kitchen that I’ve used for the pie cookies.  The pastry blender is more work and time, but you’ll have way more control over the texture of your dough. Worth it. Here’s the recipe as I followed it.  I look forward to posting a new improved version soon!

Pâte Brisée for Traditional Pumpkin Pie


  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water, plus more if needed


  1. Pulse flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until combined. Add butter, and process until mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds. With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream until mixture just begins to hold together.

    Flour, Sugar, Salt, COLD Butter
    Flour, Sugar, Salt, COLD Butter
  2. Shape dough into 2 disks. Wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 3 days (or freeze for up to 1 month; thaw in refrigerator before using).

Martha Stewart’s Traditional Pumpkin Pie with a Fluted Crust 


  • All-purpose flour, for surface
  • 1 half recipe for Pate Brisee for Traditional Pumpkin Pie
  • 1 can (15 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin
  • 3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1 TBSP cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
  • Ground cloves


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll pate brisee disk 1/8 inch thick, then cut into a 16-inch circle. Fit circle into a 9-inch deep-dish pie dish (or in my case, a regular 9.5-inch dish), leaving a 1-inch overhang. Fold edges under.
    Cut Out Your Pie Circle
    Cut Out Your Pie Circle

    NOTE FROM ME:  The easiest way to transfer your fragile rolled out pie dough from your rolling area to the pie dish is to flour your rolling pin and the surface of the dough, roll the dough onto your pin, and then unroll it onto your dish.

    Transfer to Pie Dish
    Transfer to Pie Dish
  2. Shape large, loose half circles at edge of dough, then fold into a wavelike pattern to create a fluted edge (I couldn’t flute the crust as it was too crumbly – I just folded it under to make it a little thicker). Prick bottom of dough all over with a fork. Freeze for 15 minutes.

    Ready for First Round in the Oven
    Ready for First Round in the Oven
  3. Cut a circle of parchment, at least 16 inches wide, and fit into pie shell. Fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until edges of crust begin to turn gold, about 15 minutes. Remove pie weights and parchment. Bake until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool.

    Pinto Beans - Cheap Pie Weights
    Pinto Beans – Cheap Pie Weights
  4. Meanwhile, whisk pumpkin, sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, eggs, milk, and a pinch of cloves in a large bowl.  Whisk it really really really well – makes a huge difference.

    Ready for the Oven
    Ready for the Ov
  5. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Transfer pie dish to a rimmed baking sheet, and pour pumpkin mixture into cooled crust. Bake until center is set but still a bit wobbly, 50 to 55 minutes. (If crust browns too quickly, tent edges with a strip of foil folded in half lengthwise.) Let cool in pie dish on a wire rack. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least 6 hours (preferably overnight).

    Hot Out of the Oven - Wobbly Middle
    Hot Out of the Oven – Wobbly Middle

In the end, the crust was still flaky, though I wasn’t able to get it to roll to less than 1/8” the way my grandma did because the dough would crack.  It was a decent crust, but it wasn’t quite the perfectly thin and flaky crust that my grandma’s was.  I did really like the filling recipe and will definitely use it again next time.  It was silky smooth and didn’t have that typical almost-grainy pumpkin texture that pumpkin pie sometimes does.

Grandma Aya (a.k.a. "Yaya") and Grandpa George
Grandma Aya (a.k.a. “Yaya”) and Grandpa George

I will get better at this, grandma – promise!

3 thoughts on “A Pumpkin Pie for Grandma Yaya”

  1. What a touching tribute to your Yaya. I watched my grandma go through Alzheimer’s before passing away, and I totally relate to how hard it is to see our loved ones’ mental shift. I’m sure Yaya would be so proud of you for hosting and cooking Thanksgiving, and I hope you’re feeling better. 🙂 ❤

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