Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lisa Alber on Turning Points and Pie

LUCY BURDETTE: We all loved Lori Roy's post earlier this week--so many good stories about keepsakes. When I read Lisa Alber's response about memorabilia from her father's restaurants, and about his coffee toffee pie, I asked if she would join us to talk more and share that fabulous-sounding recipe. And then I discovered her first book comes out next year! What fun! Welcome Lisa!

LISA ALBER: Thanks for inviting me here today, Lucy! Lori’s post struck a nostalgic cord with me, that’s for sure.

Sadly, a crucial turning point in my relationship with my dad occurred after his death. My sisters and I had discovered a stash of menus, articles, and fliers from Dad’s restaurateur days. He’d saved three copies of everything, one set for each daughter. Frankly, I was astonished. Dad saved this for us?

Dad was a distant man, and I barely saw him growing up. We weren’t close. Fingering a menu that listed Dad’s famous coffee toffee pie for 60¢, I realized that not only had Dad been sentimental, he’d been thinking about us all along. Talk about a revelation. I caught a glimmer of him, perhaps for the first time, and I was heartbroken. What do you do with a turning point when it’s too late to go back?

Eventually, I wrote my upcoming  novel, Kilmoon, which centers around a woman who doesn’t know her father. I also kept the one keepsake—excluding papers—that my dad had saved from the restaurants: a battered springform baking pan. My mom never understood why he’d kept it, but I’d experienced the glimmer. I understood. Menu items came and went, but Dad always served coffee toffee pie. That dented pan symbolized an era and also Dad’s love in the only way he could easily express it. I still miss coffee toffee pie.

Have you experienced an epiphany about someone when it was too late to go back?

And, for you, dear Jungle Reddians, a recipe. Yum!

Joe Alber’s Coffee Toffee Pie

Makes two pies


1 lb. box of pie crust mix
1/2 cup Ghiradelli powdered unsweetened chocolate (or cocoa)
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/4 cups crushed walnuts (not graham crackers as I’d mentioned in Lori’s post)
4 Tbsp. crushed Heath toffee bar bits
1 Tbsp
. water as needed
Combine pie crust mix, powdered chocolate, brown sugar, walnuts, and toffee in a mixing bowl. Beat until crumbly, being sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Press dough firmly into two well-greased springform pans, keeping thickness of bottom to ¼ inch and heights of sides to about one inch. Add water to mixture and blend as needed if mixture is too crumbly. Also, moisten fingers with cold water as pressing dough into place to ease handling.

Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool for 20 minutes, and then place in the freezer.


3/4 lb. butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. instant coffee
3 one-ounce squares of semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
6 eggs, room temperature

Cream butter. Add sugar gradually, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in chocolate and instant coffee. Add eggs one at a time beating thoroughly after adding each egg. Pour into cooled shells.

Whipped cream topping:

1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. instant coffee
1 Tbsp. powdered sugar

Whip cream with coffee and sugar. Spread over whole pie. Chill at least two hours before serving.

Lisa Alber’s debut novel, KILMOON, a mystery set in Ireland, arrives March 2014. Based on Kilmoon, Lisa received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant. You can find Lisa online at and


  1. What a touching, poignant story, reminding us all that we should always take advantage of the opportunity to let others know how much they mean to us. The pie sounds delicious, Lisa . . . thanks for sharing both the recipe and the remembrances. I’ll be sure to watch for your book . . . will you tell us something about it?

  2. It's an amazing story, isn't it Joan? And don't worry, we'll have Lisa back when her book comes out next year...

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  4. The pie sounds sinfully good, Lisa. I am so happy for you that you got more of your dad, even after his death. That is really a rare gift.

    My sister-in-law lived in Mill Valley for nearly 40 years, and I dimly remember her talking about having special meals at La Petite. Seems to me she always took her mother there when she visited from Cincinnati. My mother-in-law died in 1990, and had not traveled by then for several years, but they both had famous sweet tooth tastes. Your dad's pie would have been right up their alley!

  5. Congratulations on the upcoming book, Lisa -- and so interesting about keepsakes. I've kept some ridiculous grandmother's rubber band ball comes to mind. My mother's reading glasses.

    You never think: Oh how lucky was I to have a distant or difficult or (fill-in-the-blank version of not so great) parent... until you become a writer. Then it's all grist. I had a pair of doozies, and they've turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Hoping I haven't been quite so "generous" to my own children.

    That pie sounds like something it's best to measure calories by the mouthful. Blissful mouthful.

  6. Oh geez, Hallie, we all hope for that, don't we??

    For many years, I kept a baggie that had the leg of my mother's Raggedy Ann doll. One dirty cloth leg. I finally gave up and threw it out:)

  7. Roberta, that's so nice of you! I'd love to come back. I've been reading Jungle Reds for, wow, I don't know how long...What a treat to be on the other side. :-)

    Joan, you are so right. It's too bad my dad couldn't get past his emotional barriers.

    And, KILMOON! It's a story about the many ways that love can go wrong, sometimes so wrong that it leads to murder. It centers around Merritt Chase, a Californian who travels to County Clare, Ireland, to meet her biological father--a famous matchmaker. Little does she know that his happily-ever-after facade masks a deadly past, and that her quest to understand her troubled past is about to incite murder.

  8. Karen, sinful is about right! I would bet your sister-in-law can attest to that. Few customers got away without trying coffee toffee pie at least once. :-)

    Hallie, a rubberband ball! I love that. And it's true, I wouldn't be the writer I am--or maybe even a writer at all--without my particular background. That's such a positive way of thinking about it.

  9. Roberta: "One dirty cloth leg" ... Of course, I picture it with speckles of blood on it, a clue to solving a murder. Hah!

  10. Your story is so moving, Lisa. So glad you've been able to come to terms with your dad.

    This pie sounds fantastic--and dangerous to anyone's weight-loss plans. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Thanks, Linda. Finding that trove of memorabilia helped put him in perspective, which was a great help.

    Weight loss! Yee gads, all I have to do it THINK about coffee toffee pie and I gain five pounds...sigh...

  12. What a touching story, Lisa!

    And yes, I definitely relate to parents influencing our writing.

  13. Thanks, Gigi! Talk about "grist," as Hallie put it -- you've got it in spades!

  14. A very touching story Lisa. I am so happy that you found those menus that were saved for you all.

    As for the recipe, that sounds really tasty. Toffee and coffee seem like they were meant to go together, but oddly you don't see it too often. I am going to try this when I have a chance.

    Can't wait for your book!

  15. Lisa, I read your post while waking up with my morning coffee, and I choked up a little. Maybe one of the saddest things in life is realizing how deep and important a relationship is when it's too late to say "thanks." At least you can send love out to your dad when you make his pie (but what is this about pie crust mix?!?).

    I can't wait until Kilmoon comes out!

  16. Hi Kristopher! You'll have to tell me how it goes, if you do try the recipe. There were a couple of versions, actually...One of them called for a "stick" of pie crust!

    Angela! Hope you didn't choke on your coffee! I know...pie crust mix...all I can say is--got me! Must have worked better than, say, plain old flour...(I'm so not baker.)

  17. As a friend on Facebook asked when I posted a link to this... the eggs don't get cooked? (I had to stop making the "original" recipe for Caesar salad because today's eggs just aren't safe to eat raw.)

  18. Hallie, wow, I've never thought about that. We didn't worry about raw eggs back in the day. Remember the days of licking the mixing bowl?

    My barely educated opinion is that eating raw organic (must be organic--preferably local, free-range, etcetera) eggs is probably no more dangerous than, say, eating raw spinach. That's just my take though...

  19. I'm imagining that you might tweak the filling of the pie so it ends up being cooked like a custard? And wouldn't the crust be good if you added the Heath bar bits to a graham cracker crust???

    Maybe we should have a bake-off:)

  20. Whoa, check out what I just found online. This is blowing my mind...You can order a version of coffee toffee pie!

    Roberta, I'm not sure about cooking the filling...but I do know the filling can tweaked to be lighter or denser -- I seem to remember it getting denser over time. On Lori's post, I remembered it as a graham cracker crust, actually.

  21. Pie copyright infringement Lisa!! it does look magnificent on her website though....

  22. A friend of mine recently had to sort through all of her father's things after he died, all the photos and back taxes and books. Near the end of the sorting, she found a birthday card he'd tucked away, bought for her months in advance,and signed, "love, Daddy."

  23. And BTW, I recently got a sneak preview of Kilmoon. Not only a exploration of love and (other) relationships, but a mystery that kept me guessing 'til the very end!

  24. Cindy, hehehe, I stumped your smart brain!

    Wow, talk about touching--to know that your father remembered your birthday, and not just on the day-of either!

  25. Hey Lisa! Great post. It really got me thinking.
    I was recently given a tea pot from an uncle who served in the Korean war and purchased it while there. While I knew he'd been in the war, the tea pot came along with a photo of him with a Korean family that he'd befriended. This opened up the idea of my uncle having this whole other life that I never had a clue about. He lived with his parents all his life, never married and I don't think ever left Oregon/Washington after coming back from the war. It's so intriguing to consider the 'secret lives' of those quiet people at the edges of your life.

  26. Oh, and I think you should make that pie for the next ghost story weekend!

  27. Christina! Me? Actually prepare that pie? No way! :-) Actually, in the early days, I used to come home from elementary school every day to help my mom prepare three pies. I whined about it like you wouldn't believe. Now of course it's a cherished childhood memory.

    Wow, about your uncle--that's an amazing anecdote.

  28. Dear Lisa... very few blogs make me cry. This one touches that something that makes you realize so much more is there than what you can see.

    Right now I'm thinking Lucy/Ruberta must be a wonderful therapist. Because… Look at us here remembering and healing with pie.


  29. Hi Hallie,

    I am, every day, immersed in those feelings and thoughts about my parents… they aren't nice. They are really bad. Sometimes the a few good memories make me even more confused and hurt. But... the great harvest is a different view that in a strange way enriches. Being able to mine it is the almost-but-not-quite unspeakable gift that makes having survived it all worth it.

    Then beautiful pie comes along, and you think maybe if I hadn't had any pie I wouldn't have survived.


  30. Thanks for saying that, Reine. Your comments are always so heartfelt. Since my epiphany, I've become way more open-minded about giving people the benefit of the doubt beyond their gruff or distant exteriors.

  31. What a great story, and I love how it illustrates the power of creativity to help heal us. Can't wait for your novel, Lisa, I've heard you read part of it and its fantastic!

  32. Lisa, first, I am SO making your father's coffee toffee pie! That looks divine.

    Not long ago, I "interviewed" my father about my great-grandfather (his grandfather) for a particular story. This was by telephone. My dad ended up telling me story after story, all new to me, and I'm the family historian! I ended up with 13 pages of notes. Most of all, it made my dad extremely happy, because it's recorded someplace.

    I thought I knew the family history pretty thoroughly. Boy, was I wrong! Now, every time we talk, my dad has a new story or recollection for me to record. I also feel I'm getting to know my father a bit more, even over the telephone. It is pretty cool.

    Hang onto that Springform pan. I'll bet your father would be pleased to know it means so much to you.

  33. I'm touched by your story, Lisa. I think you never really know anyone, even when you think you do. How wonderful that he reached out from the grave to you like this. Fabulous recipe, too!

  34. Charlotte, I'm waving at you! Thanks for visiting me here today. It's true--writing has been my best therapy over the years.

    Ramona, let me know how it goes making it! There were different variations over the years. The recipe is definitely tweakable. What a blessing to be collecting family stories and insights from your father. That's a beautiful thing.

    Kaye, reaching out from the grave...funny that's how you phrased that because in query letters, etcetera, I used a similar phrase to describe the novel. :-) I agree--I had no clue about my dad though I thought I had him fully pegged.

  35. Lisa,
    Sorry for being so late on my comments, I'm down in Ashland Oregon, dodging raindrops and getting ready to see a couple of plays. Great stuff as usual.

  36. Lisa,
    So well said. Poignant and touching. I think all of can relate to this blog. You are a beautiful writer.

  37. Lisa,
    If this vignette is a taste of what we'll find in Kilmoon, it will be smashing. March is a long time to wait. Any way to hurry it along?

    Ryland Smith

  38. Lisa -- such a sweet tale. And even though you weren't close to him, your father obviously cared for you and surely would be so proud of you for "Kilmoon" -- which, I can say after having read it, is fabulous.

  39. Thanks, Michael! I appreciate that you took the time to visit.

    Ah, Stace, thanks for saying that. Means a lot!!

    Ryland Smith! :-) Alas, the pub date is the pub date...Glad you'd like to see it sooner though.

  40. Thanks, Holly! You're right--he would be proud. He was a closet creative--food was the way he expressed himself.

  41. Wow Lisa, huge congratulations on Kilmoon and the resultant grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation!! That's quite an accomplishment. I'm seriously looking forward to reading Kilmoon when it comes out next year.

    Coffee. Toffee. Pie. !!! It's times like this that I really, really, really, REALLY miss chocolate. I'm so freakin' allergic to it that sometimes simply catching a whiff of it triggers a migraine. I'm surprised I didn't get one just reading about this scrumptious dessert.

    Your question is an intriguing one. In your case, by "too late" I take it you mean your dad's death and the fact that the two of you can no longer talk things out in person, that you no longer have the opportunity to get answers to questions that've baffled you for decades. But you did get your answer, and I'm deeply touched by the way you recognized and accepted it.

    Because I don't believe we ever fully know each other, or are known by others, I suspect this situation is far more common than most people realize. My father was a sentimental Irishman who gave love and hugs freely to my mom, brother and me. There was no doubt we were all loved and cared for. The part of his story I was never able to learn about in anything other than a superficial way was his childhood and adolescence. I knew some facts, but never what provoked the events or how Dad felt about any of it. In 1935, at 14, he ran away from home, from Massachusetts to Tennessee, taking his 12 year-old brother with him. They were gone for months before being discovered and returned to their parents. At 16 he made his escape permanent by dropping out of high school and joining the Civilian Conservation Corps, and as soon as he turned 18 he enlisted in the navy.

    When my attitudes and behavior began to mirror Dad's (among other things, we shared a violent dislike of authority of any kind), I tried to talk to him about his past but he just couldn't do it. I was trying to figure myself out and find out if he'd learned anything useful from his experiences. Because we were so much alike, I thought he might be able to help shed some light on my very dark places, but he simply wasn't capable of it. He'd never gotten any help for himself, so how could he?

    Dad died in 1985, when he was 63, the age I am now. There are gobs of unanswered questions I have about his life, and they'll likely remain unanswered because everyone from his generation is also dead. My turning point involved acceptance and forgiveness. I've done my best to make peace with my past and with my dad's. I've made progress at learning to live with questions and be at peace not knowing the answers in many areas of my life.

    The practice of forgiveness has also played an immense part in all this. It's a process, not an event, for me. Dad was dying of lung cancer and it became obvious he was near the end of his life. My mom called my grandmother to let her know Dad was a short timer so she could come to California from Massachusetts to say goodbye in person. Dad had been a wonderful, loving son. He wrote long letters to his mother; chose, wrote and mailed cards throughout the year; called her often and always ended the calls by telling her he loved her. Not once in her life did his mother tell her son she loved him. And she didn't come out to say goodbye to him while he was alive, because she said she was afraid to fly. But she did fly out for his funeral.

    I nourished a resentment at her for years, partly for my own sake, partly for Dad's. (Please recall, he's dead. How sick is that?) Mercifully, it finally occurred to me that I don't know my grandmother's story! The resentment began to shrivel and die that day. And so it goes.

  42. So glad you wrote about this experience, Lisa. Though I'm not much of a cook, I'm going to give your recipe a try. Who could resist coffee toffee pie? Best of luck to you with your upcoming novel.

  43. Lynda, thank you for sharing your story. Wow. The gobs of unanswered questions linger, don't they? We can't know what truly resides in people's hearts. I don't think the truth of we are can be expressed in words, even when we try. Therefore, all we can do is forgive and accept--and that includes forgiving and accepting ourselves, which might be the hardest thing of all.

    Lori, thanks! And thanks for writing a wonderful springboard of a post. :-)

  44. Lisa,
    Congratulations on your new book!
    Thanks so much for giving us the recipe for your dad's dangerous coffee toffee pie. It may be a weak moment (in my diet) in which I discover the glorious tastes awaiting me. A tip of the hat to your dad for bequeathing his culinary riches to you and your sisters.
    I thank you too for your enjoyable posts at JRW. I'll be looking for you again come publishing time.
    Fellow Californian, Avi

  45. Hi Avi, thanks for visiting! Coffee toffee pie is dangerous indeed. I remember licking the mixing bowls nearly everyday after school (in the early days when Mom and I made them at home). Mmmmm....

  46. Some of the most special times of my life were spent at La Petite---I had to have the chicken lemon soup and of course,the Coffee Toffee pie--had some great conversations with good friends.
    I also had a distant, complicated relationship with my father.My mother passed away when I was 12 and my Dad and I were stuck with each other for the duration.
    After he passed away I found a little box that had one earring of mine and one of my mother's along with his cufflinks.I had always wondered where that earring had gone----

  47. Hi Maura! I'm so glad to see your comment. Did you get here from my status post in the "I Grew Up in Mill Valley..." Facebook group? I can't believe how many loved and still remember La Petite.

    That's a wonderful story. I got shivers reading it; thanks for sharing it. Goes to show he was thinking of you like my dad was thinking of me.

  48. I remember going to La Petite as often as possible from San Francisco. The food there was so wonderful. The Coffee Toffee Pie was the most sublime dessert I have ever eaten! Thank you so much for sharing his recipe! Wish you could publish more of your Dad's recipes. My mother was an excellent scratch cook, and made the best cinnamon rolls, baked in a 9" cake pan with a grape juice sauce poured over which made a wonderful gooey addition. Neither my sister nor I ever learned to make these from our mother, and we are so sorry we don't have that recipe to share with our families and to pass on . . .
    Mary Beth Dockendorf

  49. Thanks, Anonymous! I'm guessing you hopped over here from the Mill Valley FB group. There does seem to be a lot of interest for a cookbook. If I could only find Dad's recipes in my mom's house ... :-)