i love wicked vegetables: potatoes and eggplants from the nightshade family, mysterious mushrooms, and rhubarb, flashing crimson warnings on its stalks, its broad leaves toxic. It is the collective wisdom of generations of cooks that lets me Betty Crocker it up with poisonous plants. Not that rhubarb is as risky as, say, blowfish. Just don’t eat the leaves. And who wants leaves in their pie anyway?
rhubarb also goes by “pie plant,” its number one use. The red, celery-textured stalks of this vegetable are so associated with sweets in the U.S. that by court decree rhubarb is a “fruit.” In making pie, the rhubarb is hardly the scary part. It is making piecrust that should put the fear of God in you. Or maybe that’s just me and my history of crusts that scorch, liquefy or otherwise manage to send billows of smoke out of my oven (or the ovens of others—sorry Morgan!) and right to the smoke alarm. Lesson #1: always put a cookie sheet under a baking pie. Even with perfect crafting, they tend to bubble and ooze onto the oven floor.
rhubarb is also a harbinger of sweeter summer fruits, at its peak just as strawberries hit the farm stands. Perhaps that’s why the two seem to go hand-in-hand, although my mother calls adding strawberries the “suburbanization” of rhubarb pie, blaming America’s over-sweet tooth for an adulteration of rhubarb’s tart flavor. She’s not really a sweet sort of lady, and I am right there with her. To generously fill a regular pie pan, you want about 8 cups of fruit total and can allocate the proportion of rhubarb to berries as suits your tastes. Although I used about two cups of berries in this particular pie, I held back on the heaps of sugar called for in most rhubarb recipes.
rinse off about two pounds of rhubarb stalks and slice them into half inch pieces, about 6 cups. In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter or vegetable oil. Over medium heat, cook the rhubarb with ¼ cup of sugar for 8 minutes or until it just begins to get soft. Dump the lot in a colander, put a plate over the fruit, set the whole thing in a big bowl and stash it in the fridge to cool and drain. According to the scientific sleuths who wrote Baking Illustrated, pre-cooking the fruit protects the crust from saturation and sogginess.
take a deep breath and put together dough for a double piecrust. Measure out 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour. Rub in 11 tablespoons cold butter and ¾ cup vegetable shortening. If you have a pastry cutter or know how to do that thing with knives cookbooks say is possible then do that. For the rest of us, gently work the flour and fat between your fingers, rubbing them between your thumb and first two fingers, until you have it all in pea sized bits. It helps to freeze the shortening by the teaspoon beforehand and to stick the whole bowl in the freezer for 3 minutes about halfway through the rubbing, especially if it is hot out. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and a bit of salt. Fold in 6-8 tablespoons ice water, just enough for the dough to come together. Pat the dough into two flattened disks, wrap in wax paper and refrigerate for at least an hour.
when the crust and rhubarb have thoroughly chilled out, transfer the fruit to a big bowl and heat the oven to 500°. Whisk together ½ cup sugar, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and a pinch of salt. The cornstarch slightly thickens the filling; arrowroot also works well. Prep two cups of strawberries by rinsing them, slicing them if they are large and hulling them if they have a noticeable core. This week’s berries were the first of the season, tiny and sweet, happy to be left whole or, at most, sliced in half. Add the berries to the barb and sprinkle with the sugar/cornstarch/salt. Carefully stir to combine.
roll out the two crusts. Line a pie pan with one and gently press into place. Fill and cover the pie, pinching off the rim to seal. Cut 8 slits in the top crust, brush with a beaten egg white and sprinkle with sugar. Lower the oven to 425° and bake on the lowest rack for 25 minutes. Turn the pie, lower the heat to 375° and bake another half an hour. Remove to a wire rack and cool at least 3 hours before serving. In addition to saving delicate mouths from lava-like filling, the cooling time lets the fruit set up for slice ability.
if you come into a bumper crop of rhubarb—or later in the season, peaches!—then make a big ol’ pie in a cast iron skillet. It does an amazing job browning the crust, and such a generous, homey dessert completes a dinner party with a celebration of summer’s abundance.