Remembering Grandma Hollopeter and her Rhubarb Custard Pie
My Grandma Hollopeter and I were separated by an ocean so I was lucky to meet her when I was barely two months old. She and my Grandpa traveled by boat to visit our family in Belgium in the fall of my first year. Perhaps that first meeting, though I don’t remember it, caused her to become my favourite grandma. What I do remember are the month long summer visits to her large, sunny farmhouse every three to five years. In the morning, I would climb down the narrow stairs and open the door into the large kitchen that was the centerpiece of the house. Spread on the table before me, Grandma had everything a child might want for breakfast: eggs sunny side up and bacon, too many choices of cereal and bread, toasted or not, orange juice and milk, doughnuts including my favorite, longjohns. As I tried to adjust to a new time schedule and language and home, those breakfasts with the familiar smell of Grandma Hollopeter’s coffee in the air calmed my childhood fears and I knew I had landed in a safe place away from home.
But what drew me to her was her no-nonsense acceptance of us. If something bothered her, she stated it but then moved on in love. I can still see her, her long grey hair pulled into a low bun, her brightly printed dress tied with a belt and often topped with an apron, scooting about, her arms full of corn or tomatoes harvested from the large garden. That farmhouse up on the hill from the railroad tracks seemed like a beacon, a safe haven for this child and teenager thrown out of her moorings.
I have a couple of recipes that come from her kitchen. When I saw the rhubarb at the farmers’ market last week, I dug out Grandma Hollopeter’s simple recipe for Rhubarb Custard Pie. And then asked my 93 year old mother to help me bake it. I made a crust in a glass pie dish. Then my mother and I put the pie together. We tweeked the recipe as we went. The milk turned into cream. Lemon flavoring became lemon zest and juice. My mother cut the rhubarb and beat the eggs. She remembered that Grandma didn’t have rhubarb in her garden but could always get some next door at Mrs Colbert’s who had plenty. As the second and third generations, we used Grandma’s head to help us solve the problem of the meringue. She passed on to us her intuition, her kitchen skills, her way of finding a way through. And the rhubarb custard pie turned out delicious.
I love the stories, the pictures in my head, and that feeling that I carry from my past that Grandma Hollopeter was always there for me, even though we were most often miles away from each other. And those light filled days, at ease in her kitchen, make me want to recreate that warmth in this time and place.
Grandma Hollopeter's Rhubarb Custard Pie
1 unbaked pie crust in a 9 inch glass pie pan
4 1/2 c. rhubarb, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
1 1/4 c. sugar
3 T. flour
4 eggs, separated
1/3 c. heavy whipping cream
1 t. lemon zest
1 t. lemon juice
Toss rhubarb in sugar and flour mixture. Beat egg yolks and add cream. Add to rhubarb mixture. Pour into unbaked pie crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees; bake another 35 to 40 minutes, until set. You might have to cover the edges of the crust with tinfoil so it won't get too dark.
Make a meringue out of the 3 egg whites. (Beat the egg whites and add 3 to 4 T. Sugar once they have gotten fluffy. Beat until stiff and shiny.) Top the rhubarb custard with the meringue and brown in the oven for 8 minutes until edges turn golden.