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Winter, spring, pie

Early March: it’s an in-between time, not really winter and not quite spring. The leaves are still gone, but the birds are trickling back. Parkas and gloves wend their way into the closet, and out come jackets, sweaters, and soon, short sleeves. Away goes the butternut squash; in come artichokes and asparagus. And I follow a post about Brandon and Indian cookery with one about an ex-boyfriend and Americana. It’s an in-between time, but in the midst of so much juxtaposition, there’s bound to be something interesting.

If there is one thing to know about Nicho, it is this: the man loves a good pie. Weaned on his mother Martha’s lovingly made baked goods—breads and pastries alike—he knows a worthy one when he tastes it. Over the course of our brief courtship and the friendship that has followed, he has sampled many a sweet from my kitchen, but never that most prized of desserts. We have discussed the merits of various fillings, fats, and degrees of flakiness, but in my home, nary a pie has graced his plate. For my birthday last September, he presented me with a pie plate, and an implicit challenge. I did not venture a response for nearly six months—until early last week, when, with still-wet eyes and one hand waving goodbye to Brandon, I got a phone call. Saturday would be, Nicho reminded me, his birthday, and by way of celebration, he planned an early-evening dinner with friends and a few of his trademark treats: sausages, Swiss chard from the family garden, and a few titanic turkey drumsticks. Ever eager for an excuse to open the oven, I offered a homemade birthday cake—and with a subtle nudge, walked right into baking a birthday pie. So I scratched my head, looked to the skies, and by Saturday afternoon, arrived at rhubarb and orange zest.

When in doubt, in between, and in early March, it never hurts to straddle the fence where pie filling is concerned. Apples are last fall’s news; cherries are yet to come; and berries are prohibitively expensive. When we find ourselves somewhere between showers and sunlight, the clouds and the continental plates, the winter and the spring, it’s only fitting to take the two seasons in hand and stir them together between two buttery crusts. Winter’s oranges are on their way out, but in my kitchen, they send up a sweet, spicy welcome to rhubarb, whose sunny, rakish, rosy stalks are just beginning their seasonal revival. I speak for all of us present on Saturday night—including Nicho, who folded his approval into a goodnight hug—when I assure you that in-between is a very good place to find a successful pie filling, if not a season.

Fresh Rhubarb Pie with Orange Zest

Pies are more about assembly than anything. Once you feel comfortable working with pastry dough, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to churn out a very pretty pie. Because this one is, really, all about the rhubarb, be sure to choose good, fresh stalks. They should be crisp and firm—never flaccid—and if possible, choose ones that have a deep, pink-red hue: they will yield a more vibrantly colored filling. To make a relatively easy dessert even easier, let the pâte brisée—French-speak for buttery pastry dough—sit on the counter at room temperature for at least 20 minutes prior to rolling. I find that it is nearly impossible to roll out when still chilled from the refrigerator, so I wait until it feels just thawed enough to yield gently under the rolling pin. Do not, however, allow it to sit until it is fully at room temperature, or you risk having a heavy, not-so-flaky crust.

1 recipe Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
6 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
2 ½ to 3 tsp freshly grated orange zest
1 ½ pounds fresh rhubarb, washed, trimmed, and chopped into ½-inch slices
1 Tbs unsalted butter
Good-quality vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.

On a lightly floured surface, roll one disk of pâte brisée into a circle about 12 inches in diameter. Gently fit the round of pastry dough into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing it up smoothly along the sides. Trim away excess pastry from the rim. Slip the pie plate into the refrigerator for a few minutes while you prepare the filling.

In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, flour, salt, and orange zest, whisking to mix completely. Remove the pie plate from the refrigerator, and sprinkle ¼ of the sugar mixture over the pastry in the bottom of the pie plate. Heap the chopped rhubarb on top of the mixture. Distribute the rest of the sugar mixture evenly over the rhubarb; it may seem like a lot, but don’t be tempted to skimp. Cut the butter into a few small pieces, and disperse them over the filling.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the second disk of pastry dough into a circle 11-12 inches in diameter. Gently lay the round of dough atop the prepared pie, trimming away excess and then pinching and crimping along the edges to seal the top and bottom crusts together. With a sharp paring knife, gently cut three or four slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Place the pie plate on a baking sheet (for ease of transport), and slide it into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue to bake for another 40 minutes to 55 minutes, until the crust is lightly golden and the filling is bubbling up gently through the slits in the top crust. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve warm or cold, with vanilla ice cream.

Yield: 8 generous servings


Anonymous wintrymix said...

Aah, rhubarb pie. My grandma from Wisconsin used to make it for us and hers had a closely-guarded special ingredient that made it extra-special. After she passed away I found her recipe and it was -- brace yourself -- Red Hot candies. (Those tiny little cinnamon candies.) I know. . . yuck. But, to a little girl it tasted extra good and was even more vibranty-colored than regular rhubarb pie! Thanks for your blog.

9:45 PM, March 06, 2006  
Anonymous Nicky said...

Hi Molly,
Would you say, a piece of your pie could help to make our winter go away? We've had more than two feet of snow over the weekend and after pausing for one day - what a nice surprise - it just started snowing again! At least your pie would improve my mood ten-fold ;)

11:34 PM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger Michèle said...

Aw, you are so darn cute! Its just like 'Like Water for Chocolate'--I imagine your goodbye tears falling into the pie as you make it, so that in the end it tastes even better to those who eat it. Oh yes, Im cheesy, but I'm proud of it. But seriously, everytime you make something I just want to march right into the kitchen and make the same thing. It's madness I tell you. Madness!

2:26 AM, March 07, 2006  
Anonymous bea at La Tartine Gourmande said...

Ah the dough. Love love working dough! My favorite of all remaisn Puff pastry!
And what a lovely friend you make! No one ever came to my door with a homemade pie for my birthday!!!
And rhubarb, miam! My mum grew her own rhubarb and yes yes, I used to suck on it just like this. We do crazy things!

So was he pleased??

4:08 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Alanna said...

Just this morning I was reading a lovely little book, Humble Pie. The chapter on rhubarb pies is both funny and heart-warming ... but one thing she said is that a rhubarb pie MUST ooze ... and so I checked yours right away, and sure enough, it oooooooozes.

5:39 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Lisa said...

I must tip my hat to a gal who will hyperlink a Martha Stewart recipe quietly - without any sort of preamble about it - and just carry on.

Sorry about Brandon...

from a pie cruster in Minnesota

6:53 AM, March 07, 2006  
Anonymous lindy said...

I love rhubarb, in pies and jam and everywhere-the violent fuschia fading to soft pink, and combined with the traditional strawberries, well,it's the best.

But the one thing that rhubarb lacks is a really fetching scent.The orange combo supplies that in spades. It sounds wonderful.

I have to wait almost 2 more months for some local rhubarb here.

9:45 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Chris said...

Wait, sorry about Brandon? Am I missing something? It didn't seem to me like you had broken up?

10:39 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Wintrymix, now that is good, grandmotherly cooking! Sounds as though yours knew a secret or two for keeping the kids happy. Have you tried baking her recipe yourself? I'm awfully curious...

Nicky, I don't know if pie can actually influence weather patterns, but it's worth a shot. And if you are willing to brave the snow, I'm sure you can find a suitable fruit for filling, even if rhubarb isn't quite ready. Chin up!

Michele, ma cherie, three cheers for cheesiness! I'm in the running for world's biggest crybaby, myself. I start getting sniffly days before Brandon leaves - or if I'm visiting him, before I leave. It seems to get a little worse every time, but I take it as a good sign. And then, of course, I bake.

Bea, I know exactly what you mean - a well-made pastry dough is like handling a sheet of fabric, cool and soft. Pretty dreamy! And while I hesitate to speak for him, I think Nicho thought the finished pie was pretty dreamy too. When he hugged me goodbye, he whispered in my ear that it was - gasp! - better than his mother's! I hope she'll forgive me...

AK, I envy you, spending your morning with a book called Humble Pie! Sounds wonderful. And yes, my rendition of rhubarb pie does ooze quite nicely, while also being sturdy enough to slice. It passes the test, I dare say.

Lisa, Martha Stewart taught me how to make pastry dough, and for that, I am eternally grateful. She's made her mistakes, and she may not be warm and fuzzy, but she knows her stuff. Amen. And as for Brandon, no apologies needed! This long-distance business is horrible - no two ways around it - but there is something reassuring in having it be so hard to say goodbye. And anyway, we'll see each other in less than three weeks - or, as we like to delude ourselves by saying, "in only a few days!" - when I go to New York for a nice, long visit.

Lindy, you have my sympathies. Oh, the agony of waiting for rhubarb! I know it well.

And Chris, you're right. No breaking up here. Phew.

11:44 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger amylou said...

My dear Molly, do you read my mind or do I read yours? On my stuffy, boring train ride home, after planning my dal dinner, I was fantasizing about--what else?--pie crusts. Nothing is better than a good fruit pie. If I can find some rhubarb, I'll give this one a whirl.

12:14 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Katy said...

Oh! I am so dreadfully jealous! I don't know why but rhubarb is absolutely non existent here in Corrientes, and it is one of my all time favorite things too, that is, after grapefruit of course. I make it up into a compote with orange (because it is insanely fast to do- just juice and zest of a few oranges, rhubarb and sugar) and it is divine on top of brown cow yogurt! Enough reminiscing about rhubarb though, all I really wanted to say was: how could you tease me so? you are really entirely too bad.

1:30 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger tara said...

Molly, how I adore this post! You've perfectly caputured this feeling of limbo that March seems to bring. The joy of cozy knits has worn off, and it's not quite time for pretty open-toed heels - cooking a pie like this seems the perfect pastime!

And how sweet the two of you lovebirds are, the smitteness is evident.

6:18 PM, March 07, 2006  
Anonymous Julie said...

Yum, you've inspired me (as always). We don't have rhubarb here yet, but I've got two quarts of tart Montmorency pie cherries in the freezer, so a tarty-tangy-sweet pie might just be in the making at my house, too.

6:31 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Brian Gardunia said...

Have you tried apple-cranberry? It makes a great pie. Especially with a sweet apple that usually isn't that great in apple pie. The tart cranberries make up for that and go well with cinnamon.

3:13 PM, March 08, 2006  
Blogger Nic said...

Great choice for the filling, Molly. I still haven't seen very much rhubarb down here in So Cal, which reaffirms my belief that it isn't all that popular in this city. These people don't know what they're missing out on: rhubarb pie!

7:46 AM, March 09, 2006  
Anonymous Chris said...

I'm looking for you.

3:05 PM, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Amy, that's my kind of daydream! If only Sweden were a little closer to Seattle, my dear, I'd bake you a rhubarb pie. xo

Mea culpa, Katy! I had no idea that I was being such a tease. You have my condolences on your rhubarbless situation. That compote of yours sounds wonderful, by the way, and might just inspire me to add more rhubarb to the weekend grocery list. Oh, and how about that cream-top Brown Cow yogurt, huh? Wow.

Tara, you're back! And I see from your site that having a wee little Ben isn't keeping you from making some pretty luscious-looking sweets. Might a pie be next on the docket?

Julie, I can imagine few things better than TWO QUARTS(!) of cherries in early March. As always, you clearly know how to live.

Brian, I have eaten an apple-cranberry pie, but I haven't made one...yet. Good idea!

Nic, I always wondered what was so strange about So Cal, and I believe I now know. No rhubarb? Oh dear. Maybe an early-spring farmers' market will come to your rescue?

Chris, it's good to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by...

4:10 PM, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Nic said...

I hope so. I tend to gather a huge batch if I make it up to the bay area in season...

7:00 PM, March 09, 2006  
Anonymous Melissa said...

Lovely post, you've captured the fickleness of this in-between time of year so well, although I dare say that here in Scotland winter seems to be doing its best to keep its iron grip on us. Anyhow, it's funny you should write about rhubarb because I had decided that this will be the spring we're going to get to know each other better, and what should you offer up but an absolutely gorgeous rhubarb pie. Could there be any better place to start?

9:05 AM, March 10, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Melissa, whenever the weather decides to cooperate, I predict that you and rhubarb are going to be fast friends - if not lovers. Watch out, Manuel!

9:45 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous Janet said...

First rhubarb of my garden this year. Made a strawberry rhubarb pie and it was wonderful except that it was way too juicy as it just couldn't thicken. Did it again today with more flour and it was the same. Any suggestions? Love you blog!

9:20 PM, June 04, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Janet! But hmmm, I'm not sure what to tell you. If more flour didn't do the trick, well, hmmm. I'm not sure it would make any difference, but you could try using tapioca as a thickener instead - some people prefer it over flour. You might give it a try.

Either way, a runny pie is better than no pie at all, right?

12:48 PM, June 06, 2006  

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