Saturday, April 22, 2006

Mmmm... Rhubarb Pie...

I wandered over to the Portland Farmers' Market this morning, which in itself is a sign that spring is here, finally. I was picking up a few staples and noticed that a few vendors had rhubarb for sale. I'm not exaggerating when I say that in an instant I'd decided to buy some and make a pie today. Making pie is an occasional hobby of mine, but I'd never made a rhubarb pie before. I'd always meant to, since it's about my favorite, but for whatever reason I usually don't start making pies in earnest until June or so, when cherries are available. I think my food impulses sometimes tend to lag a few months behind what the weather's doing, so that a big plate of sausages, potatoes, and sauerkraut sounds great for a month or two after everyone else is eating light summery nibbles. But I overcame this tendency long enough to put a pie together, and I think it turned out pretty well.

I chatted with a couple of other people at the market who were also buying rhubarb, and they were all intending to use it in various dishes combined with strawberries. I didn't say this at the time because I often try to be reasonably pleasant in person, but adulterating rhubarb with strawberries or any other fruit is an abomination, pure and simple. It's not that I don't like strawberries, because I love strawberries. I don't want rhubarb in my strawberry pie either. The two tastes don't go together. It's just plain wrong.

The other thing I noticed is that none of the other customers was making pie. People have gotten the idea that making pie is just too hard. Meaning that making the crust is hard. And they aren't entirely wrong. I just recently switched to doing pie crust with half butter, half shortening, which I'm currently convinced is the secret to good crust. I used to use all butter, but this gives you a crust that's tasty but really hard and tough. The shortening gives you a nice flaky consistency, but it's got no flavor whatsoever -- try tasting a dollop of Crisco some time. A lot of restaurant and bakery pies seem to go the 100% shortening route, which makes the result bland and uninteresting, and kind of greasy if it's done badly. I've always heard that lard crusts turn out really well too. I've never tried that, but I'm thinking it might go well with an apple pie, sort of the whole pork & apples thing, since I understand you do get a faint sense of the pig in the result when you use lard. Not a lot of people use it, I'm not sure why. I expect it's the saturated fat, although if you're eating enough pie that the fat content is a serious component of your diet, you're probably eating way too much pie, and you ought to think about maybe reducing your intake a little.

One "pie secret" you hear about a lot is the importance of making sure your fats don't get evenly mixed into your flour. In practice this means keeping the fats from softening up too much. You can be as obsessive as you like about this. It doesn't get really critical, or difficult, until midsummer when the days are hot and it doesn't cool off at night, but trying to minimize heat absorption is kind of an engineering problem, so I play around with it even when I don't really have to. I tend to put the butter in the freezer, chop it up with a sharp, chilled knive once it's really hard, and then put it back in the freezer. I try to do this with the shortening too, but it doesn't work out as well. That's a point I haven't quite figured out just yet. The general idea is to keep everything as cold as possible, touch things with your hands as little as you can, and generally do as little as possible to the dough, right up until it goes into the oven. You want everything to hold together, so you have to work with it a little, but in general the less you do to it the better. That's been my experience, anyway, although I'm certainly not a pro at this.

I think my biggest problem is technique. Everything I do tends to come out a bit, ah, rustic looking. One look and it's obvious I don't do this for a living. Not even as one of those "artisan bakers" who makes things carefully designed to look rustic. Hence I haven't posted any photos. Well, mostly that was because we ate part of it before it occurred to me to write about it. Which is because even I have my priorites straight from time to time.

Here's a page with a whopping 52 rhubarb pie recipes. Many are of the abominable multifruit variety, but some people apparently like that sort of thing, and it's a free country. The Wikipedia article about rhubarb pie is no great shakes, but their rhubarb article is interesting. My pie today was sort of based on the rhubarb pie recipe in Ken Haedrich's book Pie, which I highly recommend. My sole complaint is that it's so big that it doesn't want to stay open to the recipe you're working on, so your copy will end up with some doughy fingerprints on it sooner or later.

I tend not to stick to recipes all that religiously regarding what to do with the fruit. Fruit is flexible, and if you don't have / can't find a certain ingredient, there's bound to be something else available that will go nicely in a pie. I didn't have any orange juice or orange zest today, so I substituted a bit of lemon juice, and a bit of grapefruit juice, which I thought turned out pretty well. Cherry pie recipes often call for a splash of liquor, usually some kirsch (cherry brandy), which is something I don't often have sitting around the house. One time I used dark rum and a bit of vanilla instead, which turned out really well. Last year I simply couldn't find any fresh pie cherries anywhere, so I got cherries of a couple of other varieties and soaked them overnight in some Belgian kriek lambic beer, which is produced with sour cherries and additionally has a lot of lactic acid sourness from the lambic process. You want to add less sugar if you do this, since the kriek is pretty sweet in addition to being sour. That turned out rather well too. Obviously you want to use fresh sour cherries if you can get 'em, but for some reason nearly all of the nation's sour cherries are grown in the midwest (mostly Michigan) and not here. So sometimes you just gotta improvise. Sometimes that turns out great. And if not, well, it's just pie, you know.

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