When I’ve had enough of winter, rhubarb gets me through. Every year I look to our rhubarb patch for encouragement that winter is ready to give up the ghost, and spring is on the way. Tips of leaves, pink as the stalks that will follow, push through still-cold soil before the garden is completely free of snow.
Now the snow is long-gone, and the spring weather has arrived as promised, along with long leafy stalks of rhubarb. Where, just weeks ago, I waited eagerly for the first few stalks to grow long enough to cut, the rhubarb roots wait impatiently for me to catch up. Be quick, is the message, and pick what you want before the stems get woody and the flower stalks take over. Rhubarb time is now, and like everything else, it will pass more quickly than you expect.
So I have stewed rhubarb for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like it on its own or stirred into vanilla yogurt, with a biscuit or toast or almonds or French toast.
It’s dead easy to make, and I love the rosy pink colour and the fresh tart flavour. At the suggestion of a registered dietitian, I’ve learned that I can use less sugar than I used to. Eight parts rhubarb, cut into 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces, to 1 part sugar, by volume, cooked in the microwave until soft and spiked with a dash of pure vanilla extract, works for me.
That’s stewed rhubarb, also called rhubarb sauce, an everyday staple for these few weeks in spring. What I really want is rhubarb pie: sweet, bubbly pie with syrupy rhubarb juice oozing from the crust, running out onto the bottom of the oven as it bakes, and then, while the pie cools, staining the countertop.
Simple. Just make a pie. What’s stopping me? It’s the pastry, I suppose. I’m a little stingy with my time, and because I seldom make pie, it takes me longer than it would an accomplished baker. So I’ve been putting it off and am no nearer to having a wedge of that pie I’m craving than I was yesterday or the day before that.
I received a nifty pie plate and cooling rack for my birthday. I’ll take that as a sign that it’s time to stop thinking and start doing. The first step is to gather up the recipes. I’m turning to my trusty Canadian Cook Book for this traditional one, though I will reduce the sugar a bit.
Pastry (basic recipe)
Adapted from Wattie, Helen and Elinor Donaldson: “Nellie Lyle Pattinson’s Canadian Cook Book.” Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1969.
500 mL (2 cups) flour
150 mL (2/3 cup) fat, for pastry flour, or 175 mL (3/4 cup) fat, for all purpose flour
50 - 75 mL (1/4 to 1/3 cup) very cold water
5 mL (1 tsp) salt
Sift flour and salt into a bowl. Add cold fat. Cut into the flour with a pastry blender or two knives, until when the bowl is shaken no pieces larger than a pea appear.
Sprinkle some of the cold water over the flour, and mix the flour up from the bottom of the bowl with a fork.
As some of the mixture appears to stick together, push it to one side and sprinkle the dry flour with water. Too much moisture makes tough pastry; too little, and the dough will be hard to roll out.
When the flour appears damp, press it together into a ball; break the ball open; if it crumbles, add more water. Shape all the dough into a ball but do not knead it.
Chill the dough while preparing to roll it. Divide it into two pieces, a larger one for the bottom crust, a smaller one for the top.
Dough may be rolled on a lightly floured board, between two pieces of waxed paper or on a pastry cloth.
Lightness of touch is most important in preparing pastry. It the dough becomes warm, it will also be harder to handle.
Roll the dough from the centre to the edge in each direction, to make a circle of dough.
At the end of each stoke, lift the pin to be sure that the dough is not sticking. After each 3 or 4 strokes, move the pastry on the board to pick up a little more flour, and run a floured hand over the pin. If the dough does not move freely, loosen it carefully with the side of a knife, and sprinkle a little more flour on the board.
Roll dough to about 1/4 inch. Cut the larger crust to the size of the bottom of the pan, plus the depth.
1 L (4 cups) rhubarb, cut in 2.5 cm (1 inch) pieces
375 mL (1½ cups) sugar (part brown sugar, if desired)
60 mL (4 tbsp) flour
15 mL (1 tbsp) butter
7 mL (1 ½ tsp) orange rind
Combine flour and sugar. Mix with the rhubarb.
Arrange rhubarb mixture in an unbaked pie shell, heaping fruit up a little in the centre. Dot with butter, and sprinkle the orange rind over the fruit.
Finish with a vented upper crust brushed with milk or egg wash. Bake at 220 C (425 F) for 15 minutes, then at 180 C (350 F) for 35 minutes, or until rhubarb is soft, and pastry lightly browned.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at email@example.com.