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The case of the missing rhubarb

I don’t do dessert.

Who assigned me to this case? I am not a baker, nor confectioner, and most certainly not a dough puncher or pastry chef – mostly because I don’t like conforming to methodical and mathematical equations to create perfectly puffy pastries or moist and delicious cakes. Structure makes me uneasy. Now don’t get me wrong, I will eat the hell out of freshly-baked cookies, pies, and pastries; but I don’t find any sort of satisfaction in putting together several of the same ingredients in different proportions with a substitution here and there, and waiting for them to bake while I sit idly by. Pastry and patience are not in my job description.

I crave excitement and action in the kitchen; the opportunities to taste and alter and re-taste while items simmer and reduce and roast, that’s what stimulates me. Baking is like a desk job, the overall payoff is good, but you’re bored throughout the day. When you bake, if you add a tablespoon of baking powder instead of a teaspoon, there’s no turning back once it is in the oven (don’t laugh, this has happened to me more than once).

Let me set the scene for you. It’s late April. Rhubarb is in season, or at least it should be. Strawberries are starting to come around – I picked up a pound or so from a reputable roadside stand for a very reasonable price of four dollars.

Strawberries were my first love. There’s a good chance that every birthday cake I had from the age of five to probably nine or ten had strawberries on it. I honestly don’t know what sparked my obsession with the fruit, but I loved strawberries the way kids love grass stains on their knees. There are few fruits more satisfying to eat straight from the source. Plucking a strawberry, dusting it of with your shirt and taking the biggest nibble you can, trimming the fruit from the green end, makes me feel like a kid again.

Now then, rhubarb is one of those underused and forgotten items. Rarely a usual suspect, it’s frequently overlooked amongst the spread of other fresh, spring flavors like asparagus, favas, carrots, and radishes.

The combination of strawberry and rhubarb is majestic. However one of these items is inevitably more of a troublemaker than the other. Rhubarb’s nickname is the “pie plant” because its primary use is for pie filling. After thorough investigation, I discovered that rhubarb is often only used in sweet preparations rather than savory. It is a relative of buckwheat and holds a unique, earthy and sour flavor that is almost unbearably tart on its own, but when you add sugar you have something special.  Why was this vegetable hiding under an alias?

For as long as I can remember, the only time there was rhubarb was when it was in a strawberry-rhubarb confection my mom made that rivaled all others. The flavor goes beyond a springtime craving, it’s about nostalgia; today I want to taste something I haven’t had in years.

The downfall of this investigation starts in the supermarket. To reiterate, it’s April, rhubarb is in season, or at least it should be. So where is it hiding? Whole Foods tells me that there was some suspicious behavior, and the pink-colored culprit had yet to arrive. That doesn’t help me now that I have a pound of strawberries and am dead-set on making this pie TODAY.

It takes visits to two subsequent stores before I arrive at a supermarket that I would prefer not to be seen in, but I’m determined to find rhubarb – and I do, except half of it looks like it’s been sitting there for a week or two, the tips frostbitten and some sporting a fuzzy grey mold at either end. “Typical,” I mumble to myself, as the rhubarb lay there mistreated and left for dead. I piece through the best and worst of what is still breathing. Some of the pieces I rummage through aren’t fully ripe, some are over, but I select a pound of worthy stalks and pay a man an outrageous price of $5 a pound.

I thought all my ducks were in a row until arriving back home. This is the point in the day in which things got interesting. Did I mention I don’t do pastry? Well, see I’m one of those people that assume they have everything they need to do anything in the kitchen, and if I don’t have the perfect tool, I solve the problem with something else. So I have no pie pan. I have a cake tin though. The only answer is…deep-dish pie?

I firmly believe that half of being successful in anything is not taking yourself too seriously. So it goes without saying that below you’ll find my recipe for strawberry-rhubarb stew, or deep-dish pie, or something, anything that is not a traditional pie. I was hesitant to share with you all my blunder of an attempt at pie making, but I honestly could care less that one of my first “projects” on my blog failed. It still tasted just like I wanted it to; a combination of sweet and tart with a rich buttery crunch of top. It came out of the oven looking beautiful, but like an impatient child I couldn’t wait the recommended time for cooling to allow for the filling to firm up – although I don’t think there was any amount of time that would have helped solidify that pie.

I dug in with an eager knife and frowned knowing that I wouldn’t have a picture-perfect shot of my first project as it broke through doughy floodgates and ran into the bottom of the pan. I used a big spoon to shovel it out and into a bowl, added a scoop of vanilla ice cream and called it a day.

Recipe:

First thing’s first: the dough. Simple enough pie dough (see Martha Stewart’s cookbook. She may have fallen from grace with her scandal, but she truly has some of the best and simplest recipes out there): flour, butter, salt, sugar, and water and a trick I learned from my pastry-making girlfriend, to add an ounce or so of vinegar that works as a tenderizer for the dough (It’s a good thing). Dry ingredients in the food processor, and then butter; process until crumbly. Everyone in the pool until everything is incorporated but not pasty. Form dough into a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until ready.

Second: the filling. I had a pound of rhubarb and a pound of strawberries, which mind you, is far too much for a normal sized pie, but the perfect amount for a deep-dish. Cut rhubarb into one-inch pieces, and sauté with one cup of sugar and a tablespoon or two of butter until most of the juices release but the rhubarb is still relatively firm. (Note the picture with a hint of green among the pink; this should not be, try and find rhubarb that is pink from tip to tip).

Spread rhubarb on a plate and into the fridge to cool. Quarter the strawberries and toss them in a bowl with sugar and a teaspoon of orange zest. Once rhubarb is cool, strawberries and rhubarb are mixed together and arrowroot is added (a thickening agent).

Split the dough in two and roll it out until it is thin and big enough to be draped over the cake tin. Form dough into pan and trim excess dough that is hanging from the edges. Add filling (I recommend reducing the quantity of filling and using a pie pan, but cake tins work equally as well for that deep-dish approach). If you want to do a crumble top like the one my mom puts on her bars instead of a dough top, mix oats, brown sugar, butter, salt, and flour in a bowl.

***My favorite thing to do with leftover dough is to roll it out and cut into triangles and sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar and pop ’em in the oven until slightly brown and crisp.***

To finish the pie: crumble goes on top and you put it into the oven for 25 mins @ 425. After the 25 mins, temp drops to 375 for another 30 mins.

*** Note: Results may vary depending on ingredients and cookware.***

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