Rhubarb pie, I have to confess, can be a true dilemma. While rhubarb is not to everyone’s tastes, I grew up in a family that adored it – and I was no exception. Every year, I get so excited when those (hopefully) thick, red, tart stalks push their way out of the ground and arch toward the sun. I simply cannot wait to slice them up into a delicious pie. Sure, there are many different variations on using this seasonal treat, and while I have experimented with many of them, I usually lean toward being a traditionalist. Rhubarb is known as the “pie plant”, after all, and I prefer my rhubarb tucked into a comfy two-crust pie, paired with a scoop of good homemade vanilla bean ice cream (you can use Breyers, in a pinch).
Okay, now that I have your mouths watering… I digress.
Back to the dilemma of the rhubarb pie. All too frequently, you may end up getting your pie all nicely put together, crust and all… you pop into your oven, bake it off… cool it completely (this is a crucial step with rhubarb pie)… cut into it, and whammo! The minute you lift out that first piece, you discover your rhubarb was super-juicy, and that empty space where your piece of pie used to be is flooded with rhubarb juices and pie filling. Not to mention, your crust is soggy. To add insult to injury, you take a bite and – ugh! – the rhubarb is undercooked and crunchy! In one defeating bite, you realize that you have basically just wasted the one good handful of rhubarb your friend/neighbor/family member has given to you from the season. Unless you grow your own rhubarb and have a gluttonous amount to use yourself and share with others, you may be stuck until next spring. Has this happened to you? No worries. It’s common. It happens to the best of us enthusiastic home bakers.
I offer you good news. I tested out a few different recipes until I found one that finally got it right. That recipe was found in a wonderful pie cookbook which every – and I mean every – baker should have in his or her repertoire: Pie by Ken Haedrich. (*note: you can purchase his book from Amazon by clicking the link provided below!) I haven’t had a recipe from this book fail me yet, and best of all, the very first recipe listed – the All-Rhubarb Pie recipe – is hands-down your go-to rhubarb pie recipe. Trust me on this one.
Here’s why I prefer it above the others: it’s sweet-tart, but not too sweet, letting the true tartness of the rhubarb shine through. It has a flavorful balance of just enough sugar, orange juice, orange zest, and nutmeg – a perfect combination. The rhubarb, every time I have made this recipe, cooks through and does not come out crunchy and under-baked. And finally, it’s thickened by cornstarch, NOT flour. I’ve tasted plenty of rhubarb pies where handfuls of flour were tossed in as the thickener – the end result being that the pie tastes like rhubarb swimming in wallpaper paste. Eek! You do not want that! I haven’t tried any pies that use tapioca. I’m not anti-tapioca (I love tapioca pudding), I just don’t care to have my rhubarb coated with those little gelatinous beads. The cornstarch in this recipe is not too much, and don’t worry – the typically starchy flavor of cornstarch is not evident in the final result. It blends in perfectly with the other ingredients and gives you just the right amount of stability to keep your pieces of pie held together and not flooding your pie plate.
As for the pie crust – I use a family recipe which, I’m sorry to say, at this point I’m just too loyal to share. It’s the perfect all-purpose pie crust that is easy to handle and roll out, and bakes up nice and flaky in the oven. I’ve made a few adjustments to this family recipe that have suited it well, and I am happy to share those adjustments with you to try with your own special pie recipe:
1. Substitute chilled vodka for 1/2 the ice water used in your pie crust recipe. I learned this from Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen. I know – “Vodka, Mark? Really???!!” I can see you shaking your head at me, eyebrow raised. Trust me though, when you’re not swilling it down in a martini or other fabulous cocktail, vodka is a great partial substitute for water in pie crust because gluten does not form in alcohol. When you add water to flour while mixing up your pie dough, gluten develops. If you overwork the dough while rolling it out, it can become tough. Substitute 1/2 vodka for the water and you will have a smooth dough that is easier to roll and less prone to annoying cracks. Learn something new every day, right? And I promise you, you will not get drunk off this pie, nor will the crust taste like booze – the vodka evaporates out in the baking.
2. If your recipe uses all vegetable shortening, swap out 1/2 the shortening for unsalted butter. In the chemistry of pie-crust baking, a balance of shortening and butter provides both flakiness (from the shortening) and buttery flavor in addition to some extra flakiness (from the butter). A match made in pie crust heaven, if you ask me.
A final note – and this is not in regards to pie crust, but rhubarb: always use fresh. I know that rhubarb can be frozen or purchased frozen, but unless you are making it into a sauce, I’d stay away from baking it into breads, cakes, and especially pies. Something strange happens to rhubarb in the freezer. I feel that the texture is tougher and more stringy. I personally say fresh is always best. If you feel like you’re thoroughly sick of rhubarb desserts after using up all of your batch, give some of those desserts away… there are plenty of rhubarb and dessert fans out there who will clamor for something yummy and homemade from your kitchen!
You will love this pie if you are a rhubarb fan. Grab a knife and get to cutting up those beautiful stalks now… and dive into making this recipe. And please, share your thoughts and comments, rhubarb lovers!
Recipe from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie
1 recipe Pie Crust for Double-Crust Pie
5 cups fresh rhubarb stalks sliced crosswise and 1/2 inch thick (don’t get confused by this – just measure out 5 cups sliced rhubarb)
1-1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
Grated zest of 1/2 orange (okay, I admit – I have used 3/4 of the orange)
Big pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons cornstarch (I adjust this if I have a tiny more than 5 cups rhubarb – add a little more)
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Milk or light cream
1. If you haven’t already, prepare your pie crust, divide it into two portions (one slightly larger), wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until firm enough to roll, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
2. On a lightly floured board, roll the larger portion of your pie crust pastry into a 12-inch circle with a floured rolling pin. Invert the pastry over a 9-inch standard pie pan, centering the circle. Gently tuck the pastry unto the pan, without stretching it, and let the overhang drape over the edge. Place it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
3. Combine the rhubarb, 1-1/4 cups sugar, orange juice, orange zest, salt, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Mix well, then set aside for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the cornstarch in a small bowl, then stir the mixture into the rhubarb. Turn the filling into the chilled pie shell and smooth the top of the fruit with your hands or a spatula. Dot the filling with the butter.
5. Roll the other half of the pastry into a 10-inch circle on a well-floured board. Moisten the outer edge of the pie shell with a pastry brush. Invert the top pastry over the filling and center. Press the top and bottom pastries together along the dampened edge. Using a pair of scissors, trim the pastry to an even 1/2-inch overhang all around. Turn the pastry back and under, sculpting the edge into an upstanding ridge; crimp if desired. Poke several steam vents in the top of the pie with a fork or paring knife, including a couple along the edge so you can check the juices there later. To glaze the pie, brush the top pastry with a little milk and sprinkle lightly with sugar.
6. Place the pie on the center oven rack and bake for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F and rotate the pie 18 degrees, so that the part that faced the back of the oven now faces forward. Just in case, slide a large aluminum-foil lined baking sheet onto the rack below to catch any spills. (At this point, I usually also add a pie shield, so the crimped edges do not brown too much.) Continue to bake until the pie is golden brown, about 25 minutes. When done, you should notice thick juices bubbling out of the steam vents along the edge.
7. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and let it cool for at least 3 hours, preferably longer, before serving. (This is pretty important. If you cut into a rhubarb pie TOO soon, doesn’t matter what recipe you use, it will be runny. Be patient. I know you want to dive into a warm piece, with a nice scoop of ice cream on top, but you really need to wait. The best thing is that rhubarb pie microwaves very well. To reheat a slice, nuke for about 15 seconds and you have a nice warm piece of pie!)