Behold the Rhubarb Custard Pie and other holy food

Blog Published: January 5, 2011
By Sister Maxine

I’ve been pondering the connection between faith and food lately.

rhubarb custard pieEven as I write this, I can almost taste my grandma’s rhubarb custard pie. If you’re not a fan of rhubarb, the pure beauty of this pie may be a mystery. But for me, the pie is a symbol of love and the goodness of God’s creation. My grandma used fresh ingredients in her pies – she grew her own rhubarb and used fresh local milk and eggs. She made her own pie crusts (hold onto your cholesterol – yep, she used lard to get that golden crust). The result was creamy sweetness with just enough zest from the rhubarb for an interesting contrast. Only love can produce something that good.

The aroma of pie baking in the oven was like a magnet to anyone nearby, drawing them into the kitchen and into conversation. Baking pie and building relationships – two of my grandma’s legacies to the world, and I am deeply grateful for them and for her.

What’s your favorite food? How does it relate to your faith? Share your observations about faith and food in the comment box below!

UPDATE: Interested in the food/faith connection? Listen to our podcast with the Catholic Foodie at IGF005.

Archived Comments

Shannon January 5, 2011 at 11:21 am

Wow, that looks amazing – it would go great with my morning coffee. Have you noticed that rhubarb is one of those “love it or hate it” foods? We are big fans, and it grows like a weed here in the Pacific NW. One of my favorite signs of spring are those red stalks and big leaves in my backyard. I think food is related to faith by way of family – your pie is a great example. I have a special cookie recipe passed from my grandma (who was a wonderful example of our faith) that I make every year at Christmas. This year we were out of town, but I had my mom email the recipe and I made it for my husband’s family. To me, it was important to bring that little taste of my tradition along.

Sister Maxine January 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Yes, Shannon, rhubarb pie and coffee are great for breakfast! I’d be interested to know your grandma’s cookie recipe — could post it in the chatroom 

Marg January 5, 2011 at 11:55 am

Ah, rhubarb custard pie! One of my favorites! A Fannie Farmer special that my mother used to make. Agree with Shannon that rhubarb can be polarizing, and that pie for breakfast (an old New England tradition, BTW) is the best!

Other favorite foods: LOBSTER, oysters, clams,just about any kind of ocean fish); hermits (molasses raisin spice bar cookies); cranberry-orange relish with a side of turkey or chicken; blueberry pie; squash pie; apple-pie; a good, juicy roast beef with mashed potatoes; homemade bread; Penzey’s hot chocolate; late-season apple cider; old-fashioned apples (Macs, Baldwins, Cortlands, etc.) that don’t have the “delicious” variety in their parentage; vanilla, pistachio, ginger, pumpkin, and a few other kinds of ice cream; a good cuppa tea or coffee; veggies, especially winter squash, carrots, tomatoes from our garden, sugar snap peas, spinach and swiss chard…. Hey, it’s almost lunchtime!

Marg January 5, 2011 at 11:57 am

Bad form, I know, to reply to my own message, but that hermit recipe is special. You practically have to marry into the family to get a copy! At least that’s what my nephew told his then-fiance. She married him anyway…and got the recipe. And they’re still married!

Sister Maxine January 5, 2011 at 4:36 pm

OMG Marg, love the food line-up! I understand about the hermit recipe being almost a family secret — sorta like Sister Julie’s grandma’s (oh so very Italian!) pasta sauce recipe! Worth waiting for!

Sister Julie January 5, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Why would you eat a hermit?? They are such solitary, prayerful creatures!

karol b January 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Ice cream is my special piece of heaven. My dad made ice cream for a living and sold it via the Creamery that he and my grandparents owned in Iowa. People came from all around to get my dads many flavors of ice cream. But wait, did I mention that my grampa was a butter maker, my gramma was a county fair prize winning pie maker, and my ma a cinnamon roll baker like no other? Which makes me think the common thing in all of these is butter or butter cream. (don’t tell anyone but gramma’s pie crusts were made with butter and yes there was a secret beyond that!

Heaven has to have ice cream or when the time comes and I cross to the other side I will find my dad and we can start the “Heavenly Ice Cream Company” and in order to keep things clean we will make sure to wear our halos while making and serving it! Perhaps we will twist my gramma’s arm to make some Angel food cake to go with some of that ice cream….. And the slogan for our Heavenly Ice Cream? “Better food for angels when cake just won’t do the job!”

Sister Maxine January 5, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Count me in as a regular customer for Heavenly Ice Cream — well, not right away though. I’d like to have earthly ice cream for a while yet Your comment, Karol, reminds me of an embroidered sweatshirt that is in the Ice Cream room at the Motherhouse in Monroe: “There’s nothing wrong with me that a little ice cream can’t fix.”

KAROL January 6, 2011 at 7:28 pm

the mothership has an ice cream room???!!!! Good Lord! The IHMs truly rock!

Marsha West January 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Meatloaf has many unexplained effects. It has been known to heal marriages, mend rifts in friendships, cement solidarity between those who were estranged, and soften the hearts of intransigent enemies.

I have been shameless in its application to many of life’s most difficult situations. So it has both spiritual benefits and can be an occasion of sin – as are many of life’s gifts.

Sister Maxine January 5, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Isn’t there a course on the Spirituality of Meatloaf somewhere? If not, I vote for Marsha to start one!!

Sue L. January 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Meatloaf is my favorite, too. I always asked my Mom to make her meatloaf for my birthday from probaby age 4 until she was no longer able to cook. Her secret ingredients were oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs and an undiluted can of condensed Campbell’s vegetarian vegetable soup, the one with the alphabet macaroni, as the binder. I still make it whenever I need comfort.

Mary Beth Sancomb-Moran January 5, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Oh, no fair, Sister! Now I’m craving that pie, and my husband has been looking for a rhubarb custard pie for years. Would you post the recipe for us?

Sister Maxine January 5, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Sure thing, Mary Beth! Here it is! Although grandma cooked without recipes, as did many folks of her time, she wrote it down for the family tradition.

Grandma’s Rhubarb Custard Pie
1 and 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
dash of salt
To this mix, add 3 beaten eggs — grandma sometimes used 4 eggs, or added 2 tablespoons of cream for extra custardy goodness
Gently stir in 4 cups of rhubarb [sliced into relatively small pieces]
Can be baked with a top crust or open-faced. In either case, dot pie with butter
Bake at 400 degrees for 40 – 50 minutes
Grandma’s recipe indicates that the pie serves 6 – 8 people, but I have seen 2 – 3 people finish one off in no time

Sister Julie January 5, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Sister, you are duty-bound to test out that recipe on your local nuns before making it public!

karol b January 5, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I need Marsha’s meatloaf recipe!

Marsha West January 5, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Back to the Basics Meatloaf
Don’t bother to measure anything. It’s a spirit-led venture. Start with a large slab (2-3 lbs) of relatively lean ground beef – not diet lean, though – you need some fat to make the magic work. Throw it in a large bowl. Add a number of eggs – about 1-2 eggs per lb. of meat. Add one package of seasoned breadcubes – the kind that comes from the grocery store for stuffing a turkey. One package to about 2-3 lbs. of meat. Half a package if you’re only making one loaf. Chop up onions – lots of onions. 1 or 2 large onions, at least. Throw in the bowl. Take a bottle of Worchestershire sauce. Dump in a liberal amount. Depending on the seriousness of the problem to be tackled, more is better than less. (1 tbsp – to a third of the bottle!) Pour some salt into the palm of your hand – think about how much you would need for that size chunk of meat/ingredients. Then pour some black pepper into your hand – about 1/4 as much pepper as salt. If uncertain, add some more. Pour in some milk. Put it in a bit at a time, and, using your bare hands (clean of course, moosh it all up – the amount of milk will determine the meatloaf-ish texture. Make sure the onions are well distributed throughout the meat – if you do that, the bread/onions/etc. will be adequately mixed. (Check salt/pepper by tasting the palm of your hand before finishing up. Wash your hands afterward before continuing.) When the consistency is such that you can make a formable shape with it, get out a broiler pan (not a loaf pan). Divide your meat up into two or three loaves (I like three, since the more outer crusty part, the better) Throw the 2 or 3 handfuls on the rack to the broiler pan and shape into tidy little loaves with enough separation to make sure the outer crust gets crusty. The pan will drain away the excess fat so you’ll get a great crust. Then take some catsup and make a liberal line down the length of each loaf. Now cross it with one from side to side. Not sure when meatloaf gets it’s spiritual nature, but it’s probably this step. Then sprinkle on parsley flakes until the red is well covered with green. Put it in the oven with a blessing – and cook it – temperature? not very important. In a hurry? 450. Got more time? 350 will work. Next step is optional: butter several baking potatoes and stick in forks. Thickly apply salt and pepper to the skins and put in the oven along side the meat loaves — either on the broiler pan or along side or under it. Serve the end pieces to the guest of honor (the object of your intention) – “heels of meatloaf” have double the effect.)

Sister Julie January 5, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Is there a vegetarian version?

Marsha West January 5, 2011 at 9:27 pm

That would be meatloaf heresy, SJ. Tofu works for stir-fry if you’re into that sort ot thing, but meatloaf? Nah! Definitely a transgressive attempt.

KCMayrie January 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm

I don’t know if I have a favorite food. I have a lot of foods I like, but none that would really claim the throne as favorite, however, the idea of the connection between faith and food is an interesting one to ponder… God has provided our food from the beginning…in the Garden of Eden, God provided the plants and animals for Adam and Eve… In the desert, Moses prayed, and God provided the manna from heaven to feed the exiled Isrealites as they sought the promised land… Jesus fed the 5000 and preached His message of peace, tolerance, love, and service to the people… At the Last Supper and the establishment of the Eucharist, Jesus has provided the Bread of Life which sustains us forever… From the beginning to the end of time, Alpha and Omega, God has provided for our faith in Him through food.

Sister Maxine January 7, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Amen to that, KC!

Marg January 6, 2011 at 8:57 am

When I make the communion bread, I think of the prayer the priest offers: “Through Your goodness, we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made; may it become for us the Bread of Life.”

Jeff January 6, 2011 at 9:51 am

Food and faith…perfect together, like pizza and beer, chocolate and peanut butter, coffee and donuts. Jesus spent so much time sharing meals with people so food must have been important to him,too. In my retreat work and teaching, I try to find foods to relate to scripture stories and holy people – m&m’s (Mary) life savers (our call to hole-i-ness), Swedish fish (loaves and fishes), bagels (Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach for the apostles). Taste and see how good the Lord is! My retreat partner, a Dominican Sister, even wrote a book on food and faith. It is a collection of her meditations on fruit, called “The Fruits of Contemplation”. If you’re a Dominican, you’ll get the pun.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF January 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Bread is sacred in our family–homemade bread, that is. Mom would make the Italian Pane di Pascua every year–one batch on Holy Thursday and the other on Good Friday. This serves two purposes: 1.) There will be ample bread to last for Easter Triduum (even if you give some away) and 2.) It would give us opportunities to do penance as we smell the bread on a fast day, anticipating that anise-scented, sweet egg bread on Easter morning!


1C + 2C whole milk 12 eggs
3 pkg dry yeast (“Rapid Rise”) 1 T salt
2 C sugar + 1 pinch 3 T anise seeds
1 C frozen butter or margarine Flour (approx. 5# + 2C)
1 bottle anise flavoring (or 1 tsp anise oil & 2 T vanilla)

Take 1 cup of warm milk, plus one pinch of sugar, and dissolve the yeast. Scald the remaining 2 cups of milk; add sugar and stir until it is dissolved. Put the two sticks of frozen butter to help cool the mixture and melt the butter.

Beat the eggs very well and add flavoring and seeds. Add the cooled milk mixture, the proofed yeast, and the flour desired.

Place onto a well-oiled board and knead until smooth (It should make cracking noises!) If the dough is too sticky, add more flour.

Make the sign of the cross over the dough!

Put the dough into a very large, oiled mixing bowl. Cover the dough with waxed paper/parchment paper/plastic wrap and a towel and put in a warm place to rise until double in bulk. Punch down the dough and let it rest ten minutes. Form the dough into different shapes.* Put the loaves on greased pans, cover loosely with waxed paper/parchment paper/plastic wrap and a towel and let it rise again.

For small breads, bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until golden brown. For large breads, bake for one hour at 350. One pound of dough makes a small round loaf that can be baked in a pie plate. For an angel food cake pan use one and a half to two pounds of dough.

Five minutes before removing the breads from the oven, brush the tops of each loaf with a well-beaten egg mixed with 1/2 C of milk. Sprinkle the tops with candy sprinkles (optional). Return the breads to the oven until the egg wash is browned and glossy.

To cut the round loaf, make a cut right down the middle, then turn the cut side down and slice. This bread is best slightly warm with butter.

*Nonna V used to make “taralles” out of the leftover dough. These are like sweet bagels, whereas Nonna C used to sculpt bunnies out of the dough, placing a whole egg held in place by an X of dough for the tummy. Some people braid this dough and make a ring. We just like our round loaves. It freezes well.

You can see this bread being made in the First Communion preparation movie “Grandma’s Bread” (made in 1985, I think).

LeeAnn January 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Waffle cookies!! My Grandmother made these brown sugar cookies (similar to Sr. Julie’s Pizzelles) with her antique waffle iron every year at Christmas time. Her Mother made them as well and no one knows exactly how old our recipe is but the original calls for flour in pounds. And the old antique waffle iron only made 4 at a time and had to be held over a fire and turned over. Later in her life when Grandma was making these for her great grandchildren, she continued to use the old irons to do so and she set aside a day when my Uncle Leon (namesake) could be there to turn the irons for her.

Fast forward 25 years and I have taken over the making of the waffle cookies for the family. The first year I made them they brought tears to at least one niece’s eyes. When you can bite into a familiar food, and one you haven’t tasted for many years, it can be a very spiritual experience. And you can feel the love rushing back through time and space to embrace your taste buds. And it was love–and a lot of it. I know this because now that I have stood for hours and hours in the kitchen making 4 cookies at a time from a recipe that calls for, not cups but POUNDS of flour, I realize every year just how much that little old lady loved her grandchildren. And I hope my siblings realize how much I love all of them every year when I package them and mail them. And I have added my own traditions of home made fudge and chocolate covered cherries, buckeyes, and coconut mounds. If work is a form of prayer then surely so could be cooking. I spend days on end from Thanksgiving to Christmas in the kitchen in an almost meditative state making sure each family member gets their personal favorite and trying to remember what that is in every case. Um… at least it feels like meditation. Hmmmm… maybe it’s just a sugar coma. 

Shannon January 7, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Sorry it’s taken me a few days….what a busy week! I loved reading all of the other comments/recipes.

Grandma’s Orange-Chocolate Chip Cookies
Cream together:
1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
3 oz. cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp grated orange rind
2 eggs
Then add:
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 12 oz. package chocolate chips

Bake @ 350, 10-12 minutes. Cool completely, then frost.

Orange frosting:
2 cups confectioners sugar
dash salt
4 tbsp melted butter
2 1/2 tbsp orange juice
1/2 tsp grated orange rind

Another Sister Julie, CSSF January 8, 2011 at 12:28 am

I’ve heard of a lentil “meat”loaf, but don’t know how it’s made. The lentils were still recognizable, meaning they weren’t pulverized into mash.

Jennifer January 13, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I am wondering if I can share Shannon’s cookie recipe on my Facebook… Love orange and chocolate!

Sister Julie January 17, 2011 at 7:51 am

Hi Jennifer … I’ll see if I can check in with Shannon.

Sister Julie January 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Jennifer, I checked with Shannon and she said go right ahead!

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