Rhubarb Custard Pie
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.
(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.