A few weeks ago, I retold the sad tale of the late rhubarb meringue tart that met its end when it slid off the plate and managed to coat nearly every part of the open fridge I’d intended to put it into with smears of curd, puffs of meringue and crust of crumbs. Rhubarb, although not to blame, and I took a break after that, and it might had continued longer had I not been haunted by an Instagram commenter (hi!) who urged me to try my hand at a rhubarb cream cheese danish. I imagined the tart pink rhubarb against a lemony slick of cheesecake, enveloped in a puff of orange-scented pastry and I could not bear it.
However, as I began researching danish dough, my interested waned. I don’t think it will be a bad project for one day, but all of that envelope folding and yeast and butter and carefully timed steps seemed a bit much for six to eight folded pastries that wouldn’t survive beyond the breakfast meal. And certainly not when it is finally high pie season, that blissful period from May to September when we in this hemisphere are lucky enough to have more fruit than we know what to do with.
I’ve praised the hand pie on this site before, but as it’s been, woah, nearly five years, it bears repeating: hand pies are tiny packets of readiness for everything grand about summer — picnics, cookouts and barbecues. They are the ideal pie format for warm-weather entertaining and a dream (well, my dream, anyway) of a hostess gift, a pie that requires no serving knife, plates, forks or clean-up. They’re pie for dozens, their recipes easily scaled as you are not limited by the number of fluted Emile Henry’s you own. And, well, if you’re into that whole buttery-flakes-of-delicate-dough thing, you should quickly make an acquaintance with hand pies. Unhampered by six cups of a heavy macerated fruit, the two layers of crust that seal around the filling take to the sky, expanding like inhaling accordions, or honeycomb party globes, sprung forth from their cardboard confines.
We are all for this. Now, I realize in the eight-zillion weeks it takes me these days to get a seasonal recipe from my table to yours, rhubarb season may have passed for many of you. Do just consider this recipe a template for whatever berries or stone fruit you’d like to cook until a bit pulpy (this helps the pies from becoming runny messes, a far less charming offense when they’re handheld and running down your arm, rather than spilling out onto a plate), comingle with cheesecake, and tuck inside a pie square you will be absolutely more welcome if you show up with a basket of.
One year ago: Strawberries and Cream Biscuits
Two years ago: Roasted Peppers with Capers and Mozzarella
Three years ago: Shaved Asparagus Pizza and Root Beer Float Cupcakes
Four years ago: Graham Crackers, Pesto Potato Salad with Green Beans and Lemon Mint Granita
Five years ago: S’more Pie and Jim Lahey’s Potato Pizza
Six years ago: Zucchini Carpaccio Salad and Black-Bottomed Cupcakes
Rhubarb Cream Cheese Hand Pies
Hand pies are for crust lovers, as there’s a much higher proportion of them to the relatively small amount of filling than there is in standard round pies. Here, I use my standard All Butter Really Flaky Pie Dough (scaled 150%) but I replaced the water with buttermilk (plus a little extra, as it is thicker than water) for added tenderness, which is helpful when you want to bend and press your dough around a bulging filling. These pies are not terribly sweet; the rhubarb is tart and the crust has barely any filling. For this reason, feel free to really sweep the tops with a sprinkling of coarse sugar for contrast. The cream cheese flavor will not be strong here; there’s not enough of it, but we still enjoyed the contrast it provided. You can skip it, and just use more fruit if it’s not your thing. Feel free to replace the rhubarb with any other fruit that you’ve chopped and cooked down slightly. I take this extra step because runny hand pies are really no fun to hold, which defeats their purpose. Because my pies were on the small side, I had extra rhubarb and cream cheese fillings, but I wanted to give you a little cushion in case yours are able to handle a touch more. Happy picnic-ing!
* The shapes of these pies were shamelessly inspired by these pretties on Tara O’Brady’s Instagram feed. In the past, I have made hand pies with round cutters, and folded the sides in half over the filling to seal into a half moon. I found that this “ravioli” shape puffed even higher in the oven, and required less rerolling of scraps, and am officially converted.
Yield: 24 just about 3-inch square pies
3 3/4 cups (470 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon fresh orange zest (optional)
1 1/2 (20 grams) tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 (9 grams) teaspoons table salt
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces or 340 grams) unsalted butter, very cold and cut into small cubes
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk (or, make your own buttermilk substitute)
1 pound (455 grams) rhubarb stalks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch segments
1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
Cream cheese filling
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature (i.e. very soft)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 large egg yolk
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Make pie dough: Whisk together flour, zest, sugar and salt in the bottom of a large, wide-ish bowl. Using a pastry blender, two forks, or your fingertips, work the butter into the flour until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of tiny peas. (You’ll want to chop your butter into small bits first, unless you’re using a very strong pastry blender in which case you can throw the sticks in whole, as I do.) Gently stir in 3/4 cup buttermilk with a rubber spatula, mixing it until a craggy mass forms. Get your hands in the bowl and knead it just two or three times to form a ball. If it doesn’t come together, add remaining 1/4 cup buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does, then gently knead again. Divide dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and flatten a bit, like a disc. Chill in fridge for at least an hour or up to two days or slip plastic-wrapped dough into a freezer bag and freeze for up to 1 to 2 months (longer if you trust your freezer more than I do). To defrost, leave in fridge for 1 day.
Make rhubarb filling: Place rhubarb and sugar in a small-to-medium saucepan with sugar and stir to combine. Cover and cook at medium-low heat for 15 minutes, no need to stir. Increase the heat to medium, remove the lid and cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until rhubarb is broken down and ideally thick enough that if you run a spoon across the bottom of the pot, you can see a trench quickly form and disappear. (No need to be overly fussy about this level of thickness, as a little wetter won’t harm your pies.) Spread mixture on a large plate in the fridge or freezer to cool quickly, then scrape into a bowl. Keep cold until needed; it will be thicker and easier to “scoop” onto the pie bases.
Make cream cheese filling: Whisk cream cheese, sugar, zest, juice and yolk together in a small bowl until smooth. Keep cold until needed as well.
Assemble pies: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line two to three baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat your remaining egg and 1 tablespoon water and keep aside with a pastry brush.
Flour the heck out of your counter, unwrap the first half of your dough and start rolling your dough by pressing down lightly with the pin and moving it from the center out. You’re not going to get it all flat in one roll or even twenty; be patient and it will crack less. Roll it a few times in one direction, lift it up and rotate it a quarter-turn. Continue to do, roll a couple times, lifting the dough and rotating it until the dough is just shy of 1/8-inch thick. Cut dough into 2 3/4-inch to 3-inch squares. (I had a 2 3/4-inch fluted cutter from this set. A knife, pizza wheel or even fluted pastry wheel would be sufficient.)
Deb’s #1 Most Essnetial Pie Tip: No mushy pie dough! If your dough becomes soft (it’s a hot day or warm kitchen, aka summer) now or at any point in the assembly process, slide the dough squares onto a prepared baking sheet and freeze them for a couple minutes until they’re semi-firm again; it will make assembly less frustrating. Promise.
Brush half the squares very, very lightly with the egg wash; these will be your bases. Cut a small vent in the other half of the squares; these will be your lids. In the center of each egg washed square, put a small dollop (a measured teaspoon) of cream cheese, then rhubarb filling on top. Be ye not tempted to fill them more as they become almost impossible to seal without leakage, and why should your baking sheet get all the good stuff? Top each filled base with a vented square. Press outer edge of top and bottom all around to seal with your fingertips; a fork will work as well. Transfer pie to a baking sheet, spacing 1-inch apart. Brush the tops with egg wash and sprinkle generously with coarse sugar. Repeat with remaining dough, including second half from fridge, and fillings.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until puffed and golden, and even more brown at edges. Transfer to cooling racks and cool to room temperature before serving. Okay, well, good luck with that.