Thursday, July 11, 2013

I heard the rhubarb talking....

And no, that doesn't mean that I'm crazy...much.  I was wandering through the grocery store the other day when I heard the rhubarb speak.  Rhubarb is a vegetable that by itself is a sour, pucker-inducing thing--I remember picking a stalk out of the garden on a dare and chomping into it like it was celery--but when combined with sugar is a sweet-n-sour masterpiece.   So there it lay in the display right next to a bunch of lettuces and herbs, and the rhubarb spoke.   There wasn't a bright light around it.  It wasn't a burning bush kind of thing.  The stalk-y vegetable lay there in its red and green splendor and encouraged me to make a pie.  It reminded me that I had some pie dough in the freezer and a lovely glass pie pan that felt as if I had forgotten its existence as it languished, unused for far too long, in the drawer under the oven.

So, I bought enough rhubarb to make a pie, brought it home, and chopped it up into a nice even half-inch dice.  The recipe I pulled out of my recipe box (an old black index card box that I use to hold all my favorite recipes) is one I got from a friend from college: Jeanine Spangler, wherever you are, I thank you!  It calls for a bunch of rhubarb, plenty of sugar, some flour for thickening, and a dash of salt.  Mix it together and then let it rest for a little while to let the flavors combine.  The problem, though, with rhubarb pie--or any pie made from fresh ingredients as opposed to pie made from canned pie filling--is that it is...juicy.  The sugar and the fresh ingredients make a lovely syrup as it bakes, but it also makes for messy eating.

Some recipes call for tapioca to firm up the syrup, others for corn starch.  Remembering that the flour called for in the recipe had not, in earlier creations, done enough to firm up the juice, I decided to try to mitigate the juiciness by adding a box of strawberry jell-o.  In fact, most people make strawberry / rhubarb desserts, so I figured that would make it even tastier.  I also figured that the gelatin in the jell-o would help with the "sloppiness."  I poured the dry jell-o into the bowl that already held the other ingredients and stirred it all together.  The sugar/flour/salt/jell-o mixture started adhering to the freshly chopped up rhubarb, making it look as though I were stirring around a dish full of rubies encrusted with diamonds.  The sweet-tart aroma raising from the mixture had me salivating.  The rhubarb had been right to speak to me; this pie was going to be yummy!

I love making pie dough, but since I had the pre-made pie dough in the freezer, I used that instead.  It was the Pillsbury type that had two pie dough rounds rolled up in separate waxed paper packages--use both for a double-crust pie, or use them singly for two one-crust pies.  I'd bought the pie dough last Christmas when it was on sale 2-for-1.  Because it was frozen, I had to let it thaw for awhile, otherwise the dough would break.  The package directions told me I had to wait 60-90 minutes for it to get to room temperature, as I could not thaw the dough in the microwave.  Patience is not necessarily my strong-suit, but, for this pie, I would wait.  I put the gorgeous filling into the fridge and set the timer for the thawing process.  Once it was thawed, I unrolled the first package of dough and put it in the glass pie plate, pressing it in so that I had the same amount hanging over the edge all the way around.  Then I poured the heaping pile of ruby-colored gems into the tender-flaky crust.  I dotted the top with some butter before gently attaching the top crust. 

To make sure there was a seal between the two crusts to bind them together, I wet my fingers with water and moistened the edge.  It is critical to do this step if one doesn't want the filling to bubble up and spill over, and I didn't want that to happen.  I then folded the top over, crimped the edges, and cut some steam holes in the top.  Since crust on the edges of a pie tends to cook faster than the middle of the pie, I wrapped some strips of aluminum foil around them to protect them from the heat of the oven.  And, since the pie is always juicy, I put a foil-lined cookie sheet on the rack under the pie.  Trust me, nothing ruins the wonderful smell of baking sweets than burning sugar/syrup on the bottom of the oven.  After carefully putting the pie in the pre-heated oven, I set the timer.

Waiting for pie to bake, then cool enough to eat, is a patience-trying thing, and I've already admitted to my lack of patience tendencies.  The house began to fill with the aroma of strawberry-sweet/rhubarb-tart/tender-flaky dough.  When the timer finally went off, I took the aluminum foil off the crust edges and reset the timer for the last ten minutes.  During those last ten agonizingly long minutes, the crust browned nicely, the syrup released even more yummy aromas into the air, and my stomach started rumbling.  The juice bubbled up to fill the crevices around the edges of the pie, making a moat of ruby syrup-y goodness.  The timer made its annoying ding ding ding ding, and I rushed to take the pie out of the oven.

Now I had to wait for it to cool.  I see why pie bakers of old would have put the pie on the windowsill to help the pie cool faster; the aroma of the cooling pie would escape out the window and dissipate in the great outdoors.  Being caught in a closed-off room with the pie still bubbling and steamy is too much of a temptation.  I resisted temptation by eating my dinner of a ham sandwich.  I ignored the siren call of the pastry by watching TV and playing on Pinterest--pinning more rhubarb pie recipes.  I breathed in the sugar-laden air until I could wait no longer.  I should have waited longer, I get that.  However, the rhubarb was still calling.  So, before the pie was completely cool, before the gelatin in the jell-o had a chance to firm up, I cut into the pie and took out a juicy slice.

It was divine.  Messy, but divine.  The crust was flaky and tender like Alton Brown says good pie crusts should be.  The filling was perfectly balanced: sweet and tart; chunky and syrup-y.  I took a bite and let the sweetness and tartness burst on my tongue like music.  The flaky crust was the perfect counterpoint to the texture of the cooked rhubarb.  I didn't go so far as to lick the plate, but I scraped every bit of thickened juice up with my spoon and relished each scrape.  I put the plate and the spoon down with a satisfied sigh.  And then I realized that rhubarb pie was exactly what I needed.  How strange it is that something so simple and yet so complex like rhubarb pie can fulfill a need that I didn't even know I needed?  I didn't know until I went shopping that I needed to spend a couple of hours slowing down and creating something marvelous out of five simple ingredients and a couple of sheets of pie dough, but the rhubarb did.