When I am long gone, and my 8-year-old son is 88, and has children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to tell, I hope he will say something like, “My mother made the best rhubarb pie in the world, and I can still taste it and see it and smell it.” When he says this, I hope he does so with a slight shimmer of moisture in his eye, like he just that moment put his face close to the steaming vents on the browned top crust of a pie that I made for him 70 years before. I hope that memory transports him to an earlier time and connects me to the people being welcomed into the world on that day.
My step-father, Bob…I rarely call him my step-father because I think it is a chilly term, and my relationship with this great man has always been warm and chummy…had a mother named Florence. And Florence had a recipe for a rhubarb pie. And this is the pie that Bob still talks about when he talks about his mom. Bob’s daughter-in-law, Ann, still makes this pie for him on special occasions. She was kind enough to share a photocopy of the recipe with me. I’ve made it for my family to great fanfare. I misplaced the photocopy for a bit. Or rather, I knew generally where it was within a 12 cubic foot space of dog-eared cookbooks, handwritten note cards, recipes ripped out of magazines, and scribbled notes and notebooks of my research. When I found the lost lamb, I was grateful that the original was in the custody and care of a more responsible member of the family. Handwritten recipe cards are precious, fading, ephemeral, wisps and hints of lives lived before. Such a responsibility.
This pie could not be simpler. They don’t come any simpler than this. Rhubarb is a strange beast, though. It is uncomfortably bitter in its natural state. Know that when a chunk of cut rhubarb for this pie fell to the floor, my dog refused to eat it. My dog eats, well, unspeakable things. But, clearly raw rhubarb is beyond the pale. Like celery, it is the stalk of a plant. It has a ruby hue that is unmistakable and lovely. I would very much like to know who first had the idea to drown it in sugar and call it a treat. But, a treat it is. It is tart and tangy, and it is sweet and delectable. One’s mouth can’t decide where in the cycle of sweet pleasure and tartness to pause to breathe with the result being that one keeps shoveling it in until it is gone. Gone. The pie is gone but the warm feeling remains.
Don’t look at the sugar called for in this recipe and balk. It is necessary. This is a pie, to be loved and remembered, not analyzed for nutritional content. Go jogging tomorrow. Today, eat pie and celebrate.
And on that note, it is with the warmest regards and joy of spirit that I, and I suspect the rest of Bob’s wide ranging clan, welcome its newest member. A sweet little girl was born in just the last few weeks to Bob’s granddaughter, Suzanne. I’m sure Florence is beaming.
Happy Mother’s Day to you, Suzanne. I’m so happy for you and Bob…and Florence.
Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers, the grandmothers, the step-moms, and the women who mother the children of others. This especially includes those who stop and render aid to crying and lost children, and to those who stop when something just doesn’t feel right. This includes dads who were the moms, and the moms who did it alone. It includes the moms who let go of children to give them a brighter future and the mom’s who stepped in and joyfully, but with the full awareness and weight of the gift being given, took over. Hand to hand and heart to heart. And my most heartfelt wishes for the mothers who have lost a child, and somehow soldier on. It is with every near miss and every close call and every bandage and kissed scraped knee that I get a taste of the bitter fact that life is somehow irrepressible and incredibly fragile all at once.
I have made a few changes to Florence’s recipe to make it fit a 9.5” pie plate. I have opted for butter instead of the margarine called for, and I have added butter to the shortening called for in the crust. I tweaked simple things, but the changes were only the ones I deemed necessary. For instance, the original recipe uses only flour as a thickener in the filling. The flour didn’t stand up to the very juicy rhubarb. So, I tried tapioca flour and that didn’t quite make the cut either. So, in the footsteps of other great bakers that I consulted, I settled on a mix of flour and quick cooking tapioca and I opted for a lattice top, for optimal release of steam. The flour is admittedly a nod to Florence’s original recipe. I couldn’t leave it out altogether. I have used my own words and tinkered a bit, but it is truly her recipe in spirit, not mine. Her progeny should surely continue to use her recipe verbatim.
I have taken a few pages from my own mother’s pie book, and retreated from my food processor in favor of a pastry cutter. Right now, I can see the painted wooden handle of the one she used during my childhood. It works better. [There, mom, I said it out loud. I daily give you reasons to say “I told you so, silly.” But, I must turn my nose up at the wheel, break the wheel, attempt to change the wheel, and make my own wheel, before I admit that the wheel was perfectly fine to begin with. I’ve been doing that my whole life, and yet, you still claim me.] I have merely chilled the fats in the freezer for a bit before beginning. And, I’m using shortening. I often use leaf lard, and I like leaf lard…but my mom didn’t use it, and Florence didn’t use it. And, today, I’m not using it either.
The crust: (for 2 crusts)
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons shortening, cubed and chilled in the freezer
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and chilled in the freezer
8 tablespoons cold water
1⅔ cups sugar
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
¼ cup quick-cooking tapioca
6 to 7 cups sliced rhubarb (cut ½” wide)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. To make the crust, combine the flour, salt, butter and shortening in a small bowl. Work the fats into the flour using a pastry cutter (or by pinching them between the pads of your fingers). Do so until the dough has chunks the size of large peas. Add the water a few tablespoons at a time until the dough holds together when squeezed in the palm of your hand. Divide the dough into two equal portions and shape each into a ball. Flatten the ball into a disk and place it on a sheet of plastic wrap. Wrap each disk and place it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to chill.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
3. Place the sugar, flour, and the quick-cooking tapioca in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Add the chopped rhubarb. Toss the rhubarb in the dry ingredients so that all pieces are coated. Set the bowl aside to sit for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, work on the dough.
4. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. On a well floured pastry cloth, roll out the two disks of dough. Roll one into a round for a 9.5” pie tin. Should you be concerned about size, overturn the empty tin over the dough and make sure the dough exceeds that diameter by several inches. Place the dough circle into the pie tin and gently ease it down into the tin, without stretching the dough. Put this into the refrigerator. To create the dough for the lattice top, roll the second disk of dough into somewhat of a rectangle which is at least 12 inches long on the long side and 8 to 10 inches on the short side. Transfer the dough to a parchment lined cookie sheet. Using a crimper or a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 10 strips. Place the parchment of lattice strips in the refrigerator while you work on filling the pie.
5. Remove the pie tin from the refrigerator and place the sugared rhubarb into the dough lined tin. Using a cheese grater, grate 2 tablespoons of butter around the top of the pie filling. Place five of the lattice strips across the top of the filling in one direction. One at a time, lay the other five strips down in the other direction, gently lifting where necessary to create the under/over weave pattern. When the lattice is laid out on the filling, take the edge of the bottom crust and fold it over the edges of the lattice, pressing gently to seal the dough together. Using your fingers, crimp the edge of the pie in the fashion that you prefer.
6. Bake for 25 minutes at 425. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Continue to bake until the pie is bubbling and browned, approximately an additional 25 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven and place it on a rack to cool completely. This will take several hours. Serve as is or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“Bake until crust is brown and juice begins to bubble through the slits in the crust.”-Florence
On dough: I was enjoying my dough rolling today and thinking back to a time when I didn’t enjoy it at all, not too long ago. The difference is simply that I have made a lot more pie at this point and when it starts misbehaving, I just cause it to behave. Sometimes, it is just too chilled and I need to give it a minute, lest it crack too much. Sometimes I didn’t form it well enough in the first place, in my hurry to “not overwork” the dough, and it needs just a little more love. I always “heal” the edges of the dough as I roll it out if it is starting to crack. I just work around it and reshape it a bit. You can place your hand on top of the circle of dough and use your thumb to go all the way around and nudge the dough back into place. If it is too thin, I will fold it under a tad and reinforce it. If the fats start warming up and the dough starts sticking to my rolling pin, I just stop and sprinkle a little bit of flour on it and love it a bit. If everything goes berserk and the fats are just too gummy to work with, I’ll put the dough back in the fridge for a spell. This works especially well when it comes time to crimp the edges. Five minutes in the refrigerator makes the dough a lot more workable. I guess the bottom line is that I’m nicer to my pie dough now. It is kind of like a kid who comes out of their room for school wearing two different types of shoes. You don’t throw them away or have a fit (most of the time anyway). You just pat them on the back and send them up to try again. Have the same attitude with your pie dough. Treat it like a slightly unruly, but beloved kid, and it will generally bend to your will. And by the way, sometimes you just smile at the kid and leave the house in two different types of shoes. Pie is not about perfect. Pie is about love.
On Three Pies: The three photos above show this recipe’s journey. The first is the closest to the original with a closed crust and flour for a thickener. The second was so juicy and free-flowing that it should have been eaten with a soup spoon. And they both were divine!! In an effort to stem the tide, so to speak, I tried the quick-cooking tapioca and flour version and found it to be just right. The filling firmed up nicely without becoming gelatinous, and the precious juices were suspended in glory.
On PIE and love and me: This is not just rhubarb pie today, this is birthday pie. Today, The Meaning of Pie is 3 years old and I am also, well, one year older, too. Thank you for being here for this journey.
In the ETSY Shop Today: I have a new batch of Nancy Lou’s “Sissy Sticks” and utility spoons, as well as several of the giant pastry cloths from the photos about rolling the dough. If you are in need of an heirloom spoon or a pastry cloth (or any of the other random and varied items I have in there now) please visit: The Meaning of Pie on Etsy.