Do you have a favorite pie? I always think of pies falling in two categories, the prom queens, the blue ribbon prize winners, the ones that the president can’t keep out of his thoughts, and the rest of them. In the latter category there are the soggy bottoms, the overly-gelled fillings, the mortarboard crusts, the treacly sweet and those flawlessly latticed, magazine-ready specimen that turn out to have [insert your least favorite pie filling here] under their pretty lids.
I was invited to participate in a “cooking smackdown” yesterday on The Takeaway, a morning radio show (produced by WNYC, The New York Times, BBC, WGBH and Public Radio International) in which a pie of my choice would go up against a cherry pie from New York Times columnist and collaborator on more cookbooks than I can count on two hands and all of my toes, Melissa Clark and my first reaction was: nope, no way. Because as far as I’m concerned, cherry pie is at the top of the pie heap; it’s epic, it’s iconic and it even has a metal song this kid likes to watch me head bang to dedicated to it. Strawberry-rhubarb pie? Not so much.
But oh man, I love strawberry-rhubarb pie, in spite of or perhaps because of its old-timey charm; at their best, cooked strawberries taste like cotton candy and rhubarb is the perfect almost citrusy-sour contrast. And I love a challenge so I took this as an opportunity to revisit my standard recipe. It’s delicious, but is has always vexed me because it’s, well, sloshy. Nothing seems to get that baby to firm up to more than a (delicious) puddle, not swapping flour for cornstarch, cornstarch for more cornstarch and not even trying to “vacuum” a little overflow out of the pan while it bakes. I consulted your comments on my recipe, I consulted Martha Stewart’s cookbooks and Cooks Illustrated too and declared instant tapioca pearls to be the answer. I made my usual crust, tweaked the filling’s flavors a little, dialed back the sugar and enlisted those tapioca gems to drink, drink, drink… and still, the pie puddled on the judge’s plate.
Loser pie it may be but I don’t know when to quit, so I swept through the Greenmarket on my way home and came home with some last-gasp strawberries and rhubarb (the rhubarb season was especially short here this year) and went at it again with a little more tapioca and oh man, I think I’ve finally got it. Sure, a day late and a buck short but it’s impossible to have a slice of this and feel like anything less than a champ.
The Takeaway: Here’s the link to yesterdays’ segment. Despite having an abundance of unwanted practice waking up at the crack of dawn these days, being coherent on-air at 6:49 a.m. was a challenge, but a fun one. The judge was the charming Emily Elsen, a third generation pie maker from South Dakota, who runs a pie shop with her sister in Brooklyn called Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I cannot wait to check it out. And here’s the link to Melissa Clark’s winning sour cherry pie, with an article about her process. Mmm, pie.
All Things Considered: Actually, while we’re on the subject, I was on a different NPR/WNYC show two weeks ago, part of a segment of All Things Considered called Last Chance Foods, talking about rhubarb along with the CEO of Red Jacket Orchards, Joe Nicholson. I took this as an opportunity to try this beloved vegetable-parading-as-a-fruit in a savory dish and discovered it made it absolutely lemony. What a fun bit that must be for those who try to cook local in regions where lemons are not grown! That spring couscous recipe and the audio clip from the show can be found over here.
Pies, previously: Slab pies! Nectarine galettes! Bourbon peach hand pies! They’re all waiting for you, over here.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
The major changes I’ve made to my previous version are that I now use an all-butter crust, I’ve nixed the cinnamon and added lemon instead, swapped cornstarch for tapioca (read why above) I swapped some white sugar for the brown so that it is not overwhelmed by the flavor. I also reduced the sugar. The resulting pie is refreshing in that it’s not overly sweet, in fact, the rhubarb makes it a little tart. If you think this wouldn’t be something you’d enjoy, dial the white sugar up to 3/4 cup.
1 recipe All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough or double-crust pie dough of your choice
3 1/2 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds, untrimmed) rhubarb, in 1/2-inch thick slices
3 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) strawberries, hulled and sliced if big, halved if tiny
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a well-floured counter, roll half of pie dough into a 12-inch circle and carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. (I like to fold my gently into quarters, to transfer it more easily, then unfold it in the pie plate.)
Stir together rhubarb, strawberries, sugars, lemon, salt and tapioca in a large bowl. Mound filling inside bottom pie crust and dot with bits of unsalted butter. Roll second half of pie dough into an 11-inch circle and cut decorative slits in it. Transfer it to center over the pie filling. Trim top and bottom pie dough so that their overhang beyond the pie plate lip is only 1/2-inch. Tuck rim of dough underneath itself and crimp it decoratively.
Transfer pie to a baking sheet and brush egg yolk mixture over dough. Bake for 20 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until the pie is golden and the juices bubble visibly.
Transfer pie to wire rack to cool. When full cool (several hours later) the juices gel.
Do ahead: Pie should keep for up to three days at room temperature but I have never, ever seen one last that long.