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How can a book taste like pie?

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Kids who take part in the library programs get to do more than just read books. Sometimes they get to taste them as well.

Recently, the Rensselaer Library Book Buddies group shared the Newbery Award-winning book Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm.

The book is set in the summertime in New Jersey in 1953. Penny, who is about to turn 12, lives with her widowed mom and her grandparents (Me-me and Pop-pop), but visits her father's enormous Italian-American family (and her Nonny) every Sunday, even though the two sides of her family aren't speaking to each other, and no one on either side will talk to her about her father's death.

Inspired by Holm’s own Italian American family, Penny from Heaven is a rich story about growing up in a time in America’s history, not all that long ago, when parents worried you could catch polio at the public pool, or when being Italian meant you were the enemy. Mostly it's a story about families, and whether Penny is getting into trouble with her cousin Frankie, or spending time with her aunts and uncles, like crazy uncle Dominic who lives in a car, or worrying about her mom dating the milkman, it's the characters that make the book so enjoyable.

To illustrate the differences between dinner at Me-me's house and Nonny's house, the Book Buddies kids were treated to peas, (cooked by Me-me) and Pastiera di Grano (Nonny's famous desert).

Pastiera di Grano is a traditional Italian desert normally only served at Easter, but in the book, Nonny makes it for Penny every Sunday. It's one of her favorite dishes.

You might recognize "grain" from "di grano." The dessert tastes similar to an English custard pie, but the filling also contains cooked wheat. Since that substance is hard to come by in the midwest, many regional recipes online call for the use of regular old pasta, cooked and mashed.

Since our Miss Nancy made this complex and amazing pie, we thought it was worth sharing her recipe in case anyone else wanted to try it. If you aren't willing to try something a little different, then just pretend the pasta isn't in there. We promise you won't notice when it's done.

For more information about Book Buddies, or other library reading programs, check out our programs page.

Maria's Easter (Wheat) Pie/ "Pastiera di Grano”

Cream Mixture
18 ounces whole milk
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 tablespoons freshly grated orange or lemon rind
1/2 cup finely minced, candied citron peel (like for fruitcake - well rinsed and drained)

Wheat Mixture
2 cups cooked pasta, (cooked, then mashed fine or run through a potato ricer)
1/2 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons butter

Ricotta Filling
8 large eggs
2 1/2 cups sugar (1/2 cup less, if using the citron)
15 oz.  ricotta cheese (drained if very wet)

Crust
Refrigerated pie crusts - 2 in a roll (or make your own and add orange zest)

Directions
Cook any kind of pasta, put through potato ricer, then set aside.

Cream mixture

  • Fill bottom of a double boiler until it's top pan (insert) almost touches the water. Bring to boil.
  • Mix the whole milk, egg yolks, sugar, flour, lemon peel and citron together in the top pan of the double boiler
  • Cook the "cream," stirring constantly until it has thickened to consistency of thick pudding (about 10 minutes).
  • Remove the top pan and set aside to cool, stir occasionally to keep a skin from forming.

Note: setting the pan of "cream" into a bowl of cold water, helps it cool down faster, don't forget to stir it.

Wheat Mixture
Put pasta into a saucepan with the milk and butter, heating until butter melts, remove from heat. Let cool.

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Prepare Pans: Unroll pie crusts and place in the bottoms of 2 -8" pie pans. Cut off excess for lattice on top.

Ricotta Filling

  • Mix ricotta, eggs, and sugar in a large bowl.
  • Beat mixture by hand, with a wooden spoon, until smooth and creamy.
  • Add cream mixture and pasta mixture to the ricotta filling. Stir until well-blended
  • Pour or ladle the filling into pie crusts (to within 1/4 inch of the top of the pan).

Lattice: place the strips of dough across the filling, 2 going each direction. press edges onto crust

Bake about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the bottom  is light brown,  center is set, and top of pies are golden.

Turn off oven and let pies cool for an hour in the oven with the oven door slightly (about 2 inches) open

When completely cooled, cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill until serving.

If you like, sprinkle top with a bit of powdered sugar before serving.