Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Rhapsody in Rhubarb

...rhubarb & tulips...

Last spring Wallingford got new sidewalks and I watched with interest as the sidewalk-builders cavorted importantly in their heavy high-topped boots among the pink tulips that bloomed at the sheer edge of their work zone. No, I needn’t move the tulips, they told me; and I said, mostly in jest, that if the tulips were still standing when the sidewalk was done I would make them a rhubarb pie. Massive wrinkled leaves of a clump of rhubarb shone bright and dark green behind the tulips, you see, and the thought came unbidden, whimsically, straight from the top of my head and out of my mouth.

Impassively, the men went on jack-hammering the old concrete, constructing forms for the new walk, pouring new concrete and then grooming it. The process took long weeks, even months. Big machines roared, the men leapt and shoved and pushed and poured. The tulips remained, pretty little heads became ragged on their own, dropped their petals to reveal seed heads ripening beautifully, broad leaves still curving like panting dogs’ tongues, then paling, bedraggled but safe.

Eventually, the flag-women, two gorgeous young people, wondered when the rhubarb pie would appear. The men, who cavorted even higher and more purposefully when the flag-women were near, began to mention it, too, and I understood that I had made no idle threat, but would be made to perform pie legerdemain.

... treat or threat...

I wasn’t sure if the promise of a rhubarb pie would keep my tulips safe. Some people love it, but for some the mere suggestion elicits a puckering of the mouth.

If you grew up with rhubarb you probably think of it as a treat: from the first time you toddled alone out to the patch of towering broad leaves, with their hint of strength and poison, grabbed a thick red stalk and leaned your slight weight back against it and then towed it back into the kitchen. There, someone Big trimmed off the leaf for you and handed you a little dish of sugar, and you plunged the raw end of the stalk into the sugar and took your first hardy crunch and felt the sourness and sweetness contract the corners of your eyes. You were hooked. When you got older, then, that first rhubarb pie made your eyes widen: it was Spring. You were about to taste an omen, a token, an icon, a memory, your imagination.

It’s an ancient plant – traced to 2700 BC in China, and to 1790 for the American roots – and it was used, like most bitter spring plants, as a tonic, to get the digestive system going. And it’s an old-fashioned plant – you seldom see a dooryard of an old house – extant or vanished – without a lilac and a flourishing specimen of the pie plant, as it was called. How many first-haying suppers, tables crowded with dead-tired and famished haying crew, did a rhubarb pie or two, or three, not grace?

And yet I think of the rhubarb pie as the passion of a sophisticated palate that won’t be satisfied with quick and easy fixes, that appreciates the difficult art of a food that so many people relied on before things got all-sweet-all-the-time. Like the tastes of asparagus, dandelion greens, fiddleheads and ramps, not to speak of morels, we anticipate that of rhubarb with a kind of greed that comes for foods that are strangers to a world increasingly prone to a canned blurring of the seasons. They speak, gently but pungently, of spring.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

...the crust...

My grandmother’s crust was pale, never golden, even white. She used lard, and sometimes a bit of butter. It was slightly salty, never sweet, so that it was a flaky foil to any filling. Flaky? When your teeth bit into it they slid off each other, then through with a click, as though biting into a scrumptious, slightly salty, richly greasy, layered shaley stone. It was the queen of pie crusts, the one everyone else aspired to. After Grandma died, Aunt made the pies, for her crusts were closest, even though she would grunt, "Humph, not as good as Ma's, but..."

It took me years to learn to make a good crust, and that was only after I realized I had taken too seriously admonishments not to handle it too much and so it all fell apart when I tried to roll it out. I knew this, but could do nothing about it. Every time I tried to squeeze that dough together the bones in my fingers locked up.

This is the way I make it now: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Into the bowl of a food processor put 2 cups of unbleached flour (8 oz); ½ teaspoon salt; 1/3 cup cold butter cut into small chunks (3 oz); 1/3 cup of lard (3 oz). Pulse until the mixture is the size of coarse meal. Into 1/3 cup of water put two ice cubes, and, holding the ice back with your fingers, add it slowly to the flour mixture as you pulse the machine just until it forms a ball. I seldom use all the water, so go slowly and carefully. It shouldn’t be wet, but neither should it be too dry.

(To do this by hand, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter and lard until the texture is correct, sprinkle with the water, toss with a fork until the dough comes together in a ball.)

Flour a working surface, scrape the dough onto it, knead it a bit, pat into a smooth ball and divide it in half. Take the slightly larger half (for there will be one) and roll it out and fit it into your pie pan, making sure you have a generous overlap, say about 2 inches. Set aside and roll out the top crust and leave it while you make the filling.

...the filling...

(Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery)

Whisk 2 large eggs until foamy. Whisk in 1 ½ cups granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, grated rind of ½ lemon or lime, and ¼ teaspoon salt (I do this all in the processor). Pour 4 (generous) cups rhubarb that has been cleaned, trimmed, and cut into 1/3 inch slices (it should be dry) into the bottom crust. Pour the egg mixture over the rhubarb, dot with about 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (don’t forget this step, as I often do: It’s VERY important) and gently position the top crust over the rhubarb. Again, there should be a generous overlap.

At this point I use shears to trim the two crusts evenly. Turn the overlap of the crusts under to seal, and then crimp the edges. They’ll be nice and thick and crispy when you’re done. Vent the top crust with the shears and sprinkle with turbinado sugar if you have it.

Don’t skimp on the sugar in a pie. I use practically no sugar on an everyday basis, but pies are the kind of special occasion on which, even when sugar was valuable and hard to get, it would be used abundantly.

Bake the pie at 450 degrees for fifteen minutes, then lower the heat to 325 degrees and bake for twenty or thirty minutes, or until the top crust is browned, the fruit is fork tender, and the filling is bubbling.

By baking for ten or fifteen minutes at a high heat, the bottom crust has less time to get soggy and the rhubarb gets a jump-start on becoming tender before the filling has time to boil and curdle the eggs. The long low-heat baking then thickens the custard – which will not “set” – while further tenderizing the rhubarb and crisping the crust.

... the topping...

I always serve my pies topped with a dollop of crème fraiche, which is delectably not-sweet, but tangy and unctuous with butterfat. You can buy it ready made, but I usually make mine at home. Because it’s simple.

To a pint of good heavy cream, that has not been ultra-pasteurized (Thomas’s is very good), whisk in 1 tablespoon buttermilk or sour cream just until it’s smooth – you don’t want to whip the cream. Cover loosely and set aside in a warm spot until it thickens, probably for at least six hours. You might want to think about this before you make the pie, as I did not as I wrote this recipe.


The day came, a sunny day, a hot day. I baked the pies in the cool of the morning. I made two, because that’s all the room I have in my oven, and I really did not think that among the two hundred or so sidewalk and highway workers I would find more than sixteen people who had the knack of appreciating the taste of rhubarb and would not be too exhausted to stop by. I told the staunch, patient young flag-women to pass the word; I floated the idea to the cavorting, goaty construction workers. Sweat poured down their faces and their expressions were absent. But I had done my part and so I waited, busily.

It was not until evening, as we sat on the deck with friends and cocktails, that two lovely, exhausted, generous, grime-encrusted workers showed up, kindly, I thought, to take possession of pie. I sent them on their way with extra slices for breakfast.

Two. People. I was only slightly mortified – how could they know how good my pie was.

My friend, Dave, who has a passion for rhubarb pie (and whose wife loathes it) was the beneficiary of a good portion of the remainder; as was Jake, who was in the hospital for an extended stay. My own family made short shrift of the rest of it. I ate the last piece for breakfast, standing at the counter, starting the day out right.

Wallingford’s new sidewalks are wonderful, and they were set off beautifully this spring by the staunch pink cups of the tulips that appeared right on time. The sight of them reminded me to get my baking shoes on.

This column was originally published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on June 05, 2007

No comments: