Of course, I didn't know what it was for many years, and when I share my penchant for rhubarb with people, they often say, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of that. What is it exactly?"
What it is exactly is an ancient vegetable that dates back to China. It was brought to the Northeastern U.S. in the early 1800s. Here in New York, we usually see it for about a month, beginning in late April. It looks like a long stalk of celery, ranging in color from pink to deep beet red, and has a unique slightly tart and fruity flavor.
Most often it's paired pleasantly with strawberries for a delicious sweet and sour combo. However, a couple of years ago, I had a residency at the Yaddo artists' colony where I was served the most delicious rhubarb pie--no strawberries, no nothing. Just tart rhubarb, with a rich pie crust. I decided to see if I could replicate that pie.
For my crust, I experimented with a pie dough my brother's been recommending to me, from America's Test Kitchen, which uses cold vodka rather than ice water. The vodka makes the dough easy to roll out, but then cooks out of the crust as it bakes, making it flaky and delicious.
For the filling, I used Mark Bittman's strawberry-rhubarb crisp recipe, though I omitted the strawberries. I thought about bumping up the sugar, but decided against it because I wanted extra tartness.
The result was a rich pie wit a deep savory fruit flavor, almost like a peach, except less sweet. In fact, I thought it wasn't quite sweet enough. Next time, I'm going to add a heaping quarter cup of sugar as well as decrease the lemon juice I used to see if I can get the taste just right. On the other hand, if you make it the way I did and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of the warm pie, I think the sweet-to-tart ratio is perfect!
Foolproof Vodka Pie Crust
(from America's Test Kitchens)
Makes 1 9-inch double-crust pie
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp table salt
2 tbsp sugar
12 tbsp cold unsalted butter cut into 1/4 slices
1/2 cup COLD vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water
Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor to combine, then add butter and shortening and process until dough resembles cottage cheese curds and there's no uncoated flour. Add the rest of the flour to incorporate and then empty mixture into medium bowl.
Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture, then with a rubber spatula, fold the mixture together until dough is tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two balls and flatten each into a 4-inch disk. Wrap and chill at least 45 minutes.
Rhubarb Pie Filling
(adapted from Mark Bittman)
2 lbs rhubarb, cut into small dice
3/4-1 cup white sugar (depending how tart you want your pie)
3 tbsp quick cooking tapioca
1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 tablespoon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp butter cut into small cubes
Combine all ingredients except butter in a large bowl and let sit for 15 minutes to let the flavors combine.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and set a half-sheet pan lined with tin foil inside to warm up. Roll out first half of pie crust and line 9-inch glass pie plate. If you like, you can brush the dough with egg whites to help seal the bottom crust so it's not too soggy. Mound the filling inside the crust and dot with tiny cubes of butter. (This will add flavor and help to thicken the filling.)
Roll out a top crust, either as a lattice or as a regular round crust. Attach to top of pie and crimp with a fork around edges to seal. If using a regular top, cut vents to allow steam to escape.
Place filled pie on sheet pan and bake about 20 minutes, until crust starts to turn golden brown. Lower oven to 350 and continue baking another 40 minutes, until crust is a deep golden brown and juices are bubbling vigorously. (You'll be glad you've put the pie on a pan to catch the runoff!)
Let the pie cool at least an hour so the filling has time to thicken. Great with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream!