Photo by Katherine Harrell

Nana’s Christmas-Birthday Chocolate Cream Pie after being prepared. The pie spends at least eight hours in the fridge before it is ready to be served.

Harrell’s Famous Chocolate Cream Pie

Pie marks start of holidays and spending time with family

December 9, 2021

For most households, including mine, the holidays mean spending a large amount of time with relatives. 

We usually have multiple grandparents, maybe an aunt staying with us over the break, and sometimes an extra dog or two. Along with the craziness of the holidays, we celebrate a birthday right in the middle.

My dad’s birthday falls on December 26th, the day after Christmas. 

He jokes that the day is a whole holiday in itself and since it’s right after everyone’s favorite day, the family makes an effort to have it stand out. This means extra celebration, gifts, and most of all, food.

My fraternal grandmother, who we call Nana, is an excellent chef and loves to cook and bake. 

For example, she has a special chocolate cream pie that she makes my dad every year for his birthday. Since she lives in Houston, she always arrives at the house with her luggage, gifts and her cooking utensils for the pie.

The recipe is written on a weathered, torn and stained standard notecard in my grandmother’s easily recognizable block handwriting. In her other recipes, there are sometimes small doodles of the foods next to the ingredients or instructions. 

The pie takes more than a day to make because it requires a night in the refrigerator. Ever since I could remember, whenever Nana stayed with us, we spent the days leading up to Christmas and my dad’s birthday running around the kitchen.

Frankly, we made a huge mess. 

The counters would be littered with splashes of ingredients, the floor layered with crumbs, and the sink overflowing with pots, pans, and spoons. 

The dogs usually have a field day cleaning up after our spills. I think they enjoy the pie as much as we do.

When we were younger, my sister and I would help up until we got to the double-broiler step, retiring from baking to find something that would capture our attention. We would return every once in a while to dip a finger into the filling or to help with the dishes when prompted from my mom.

However, my grandmother would happily take on the rest of the baking and cleaning when we chose to sit it out.

Now that we are older, my sister and I choose to help with the entire process.

We always start by setting out all of the ingredients and separate them by crust, filling, and toppings. We also get the bowls, spoons, and measuring cups on the table.

We move through the recipe, crushing up the rich chocolate wafers for the crust, adding the warm mixture to the pie pan, cooling the crust, melting the chocolate, adding the delicious filling to the crust, whipping up the fluffy cream, and garnishing with crisp, yet fresh chocolate flakes.

After all of our efforts, a dishwasher full of dirty utensils, and eight plus hours of waiting, we get to enjoy the decadent pie.

The crunchy, buttery crust meets the rich filling in a perfect blend. The nutmeg from the crust adds a bit of flavor variation, and the cool cream adds a lightening effect to the bite. The garnish adds an extra element of crunch to it all.

Overall, the pie signifies so much more than my favorite holiday dessert. It’s time I get to spend with my family, not only when we are making the pie but also in celebration of my dad.

It does take some effort to make, but it’s well worth it and could become a tradition for others as well.

So, from my house to your home, enjoy my family’s Christmas-Birthday Chocolate Cream Pie.


Ingredients for Crust*

28 Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, finely crushed

¼ tsp nutmeg

⅓ cup brown sugar

4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted


Ingredients for Filling

⅔ cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

½ tsp salt

4 large egg yolks

3 cups half and half

5 oz Baker’s bittersweet chocolate

2 oz Baker’s unsweetened chocolate

5 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tsp vanilla extract


Ingredients for Topping

1 cup chilled heavy cream

1 tbsp powdered sugar

¼ tsp vanilla extract

1 oz bittersweet chocolate, grated or curled, for garnish


Instructions for Crust*

Preheat oven to 375°F

Combine chocolate wafers, sugar, nutmeg, and, and melted butter in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until the cookies are finely crushed and the ingredients are combined

Press the mixture firmly into a 9” pie pan (spread some of the crumbs up the side first, making the crust just shy of ¼” thick, then press the remaining crumbs on the bottom).

Bake for 10 minutes, until crisp.

Let crust cool while you prepare the filling

*You can sub the chocolate crust for pre-prepared regular crusts


Instructions for Filling

In a double boiler, over medium-high heat, add 3 tbsp butter and the two types of chocolate, broken into pieces.

As butter and chocolate begin to melt, turn down the heat to medium and stir chocolate and butter mixture until all of the chocolate is melted and you have a smooth chocolate paste. This assures that the chocolate will not burn.

In a bowl, whisk together the half-and-half and egg yolks.

Combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt, and add the cream and egg mixture. Whisk gently until combined.

Add the mixture to the double broiler in a slow, steady stream, whisking until the mixture is smooth.

Cook over medium heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture starts to thicken, around 6-8 minutes.

Immediately turn the heat down to summer and cook, whisking constantly, especially around the edges, for one more minute until the mixture is thick and coats a wooden spoon (The constant stirring and low heat prevents the eggs from scrambling). Be sure to scrape the whisk against the bottom and edges of the pan where the mixture is more likely to overheat.

Remove from the heat and immediately add 2 tbsp butter and vanilla extract; whisk until evenly combined.

Pour the filling into the cooled crust and smooth the top.

Press a piece of saran wrap directly over the surface of the filling to prevent a film from forming.

Chill in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or overnight.


Instructions for Topping

Close to 3 hours before serving, place the heavy cream in a chilled mixing bowl.

Using an electric mixer, whip on medium-low speed until the whisk or beaters begin to leave tracks in the cream.

Add the sugar and vanilla extract and whip until the cream holds medium silky peaks. Go slowly towards the end; the cream will get grainy or curdled if you go too far.

Once whipped, spread the whipped cream over the filling.

Garnish with grated chocolate and refrigerate until ready to serve.


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