If you ever find yourself humming, "Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle," chances are you've seen the movie "Waitress" with Keri Russell. Besides having everything I desire in a film - Nathan Fillion and pie - the screenplay is sweet and especially poignant and speaks to mothers and daughters everywhere.
I'm incredibly fortunate to have a daughter and as well, one who bakes a pretty mean pie. For Christmas, she did indeed give family members little pies with hearts cut out in the middle, exposing their rhubarb and strawberry goodness. When, by New Year's, everyone was raving about those pies, I figured there must be something to this rhubarb, which I confess I had never tried. In my youth, we had a giant plant in the yard but it seemed like one of those things your grandmother ate - anathema then, but now, it turns out, Grandma knew what was good!
If you know anything about gardening, you know that rhubarb isn't fresh at Christmas time but like most fruit, the frozen kind works very well. Here's what rhubarb looks like in early Spring - in fact, it's one of the first plants to wake up from Winter.
Now, my daughter and I are not competitive about our baking. We like to share tips and tricks and truth is, she got me my first job in a bakery. So when we were invited recently to do a pie throwdown, the competition was very lighthearted. Doing it at my very favorite local coffee shop, Lucie Monroe's, a bonus.
Curious to know whose pie reigned supreme? Well, as the wise lady on the left, judge and local Tomato Queen Juliet Roma, remarked, "I'd like to have B's filling in A's crust."
Clearly, Tomato Queens have to be very diplomatic.
But judges' choice and overwhelming crowd favorite in the end was Laura's beautifully filled pie with the hand-fluted crust. It was sweet and luscious and had just the right consistency when sliced and held up to bite.
My go-to pie is typically more of a rustic galette - French, I believe, for "easy as pie." I confess, my initial plan to use dandelion syrup as a secret ingredient was not such a wise choice. There's already almost too much liquid in strawberries and rhubarb. Hence, following Laura's route with the cornstarch is a good bet. But I do have a no-fail pie crust, discovered long ago in my Cuisinart food processor cookbook, that's ready in 60 seconds. In fact, if it takes you longer, you've already messed it up. Sorry.
Taking a cue from the judge, here's Laura's pie in my crust. If you want to know more, you'll have to hunt her down at Bollo's in Blacksburg, where she bakes deliciously statuesque scones and muffins, among other things.
In Laura's own words, boil a minute or two until thickened:
2 C fresh/frozen rhubarb
1 pint fresh strawberries
3 T cornstarch
1/4 C honey
1/4 C lemon juice
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 C sugar, to taste
2 tsp rosewater, if available
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon - wish I'd thought of that!
1/2 tsp nutmeg
lemon zest or extract, to taste
"Bake until crust seems done, 30-40 minutes. But I definitely boiled it then baked it, I think that's crucial, not just boil then pour into an already baked crust. Also, I boiled the fresh rhubarb from the beginning, then when I realized it sorta disintegrated, I added some frozen at the very end."
Laura and her prize-winning pie, along with judge Nikki who gets to create yummy things with her mother, Dawn, at Lucie Monroe's. Aren't they adorable?
Donna's crust recipe:
3 C plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
16 T or 2 sticks of chilled unsalted butter
2 T vegetable shortening
5-8 T ice water
I use the plastic blade of the food processor despite the company's instruction to use the metal one. Additionally, if you happen to have pastry flour on-hand, it makes for an even more delicate crust.
Otherwise, follow Cuisinart's directions to the letter and you won't be disappointed: Process the flour, salt and baking powder to sift, 10 seconds. Add the well chilled butter and shortening. Use short rapid pulses until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal and no pieces of butter larger than a “pea” remain visible, 15 to 20 pulses. Sprinkle half the maximum ice water on the flour and butter mixture, then pulse 5 or 6 times. The dough will be crumbly, but should begin to hold together when a small amount is picked up and pressed together. Sprinkle on more water, a teaspoon (two for the two-crust recipe) at a time, with 2 to 3 quick pulses after each addition, adding just enough water for the dough to hold together easily when pressed into a ball. Add the liquid sparingly so that the dough is not sticky. Do not over process or the pastry will be tough, not tender and flaky.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Press together into a ball, then flatten into a disk about 6 –inches in diameter (two disks for the two-crust recipe). Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour before continuing to allow the glutens in the flour to rest. The dough will keep refrigerated for up to 3 days, or may be frozen (double wrapped) for up to a month, thaw at room temperature for an hour before using.
I used about half this recipe for my contest entry, meaning you can easily get 2 to 3 pies per batch.
Using the technique above, after chilling your disk of dough, roll it out on parchment paper into about a 1-foot circle. Move the parchment and dough onto a baking sheet and add Laura's delicious filling, mounding up a bit in the middle and spreading out to within 2 inches of the edge. Fold the edges up around the filling and brush with egg wash, sprinkling with sugar, if desired. My pie took about 45 minutes at 375 and it's nice that at the higher heat, the crust will bake without becoming soggy, and give that rustic golden finish.
A final word about rhubarb - make sure that if someone besides yourself mows your lawn, you tell them what the plants look like. Or that you have plenty in the freezer if you're planning to enter a pie contest.