Once upon a time, I was a rhubarb rube. As a Southerner who made her way to Seattle via California, I didn’t encounter the vegetable until I was well into my 30’s. And I might’ve remained oblivious were it not for three words scrawled on a chalkboard at a local eatery: strawberry rhubarb pie. Upon reading them, my dessert-agnostic partner suddenly got religion. And began proselytizing.
I remained dubious. One of these things was definitely not like the other. Pie? Yes, please. Strawberries? Sure! Rhubarb? Um…It doesn’t help that the best way to describe rhubarb is that it looks like red celery, but the taste is quite tart. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to adulterate a perfectly good fruit pie with vegetables.
When the slice arrived, I reluctantly took a small bite. Then a slightly larger one. And another. I may have tried to lick the plate. I can’t remember.
Between that decade-ago summer and this one, I’ve made approximately 842 desserts. But only a handful of those were pies and only one strawberry rhubarb. This summer, I was determined to overcome my fear of making pastry dough and create a praise-worthy strawberry rhubarb pie.
In my early days of baking, I’d convinced myself that store-bought refrigerated pie dough was just as good as homemade. Spoiler alert: it is not. But you wouldn’t have known that had you tasted my first attempts. Sometimes overworked, sometimes overwatered, occasionally underbaked but never, ever flaky.
In my quest for pie-fection, I stumbled upon a recipe for “easy pie dough” at Serious Eats. They had me at “easy.” The dough is made in a food processor and pulsed way beyond the pea-sized-butter point, which seems counterintuitive, but it works. The author (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, former editor at Cook’s Illustrated) claims that the dough is “as supple and easy-to-roll as Play-doh” and “as flaky and tender as the best pie you’ve ever eaten.” Which seems like hyperbole, until you try it. There’s also a step-by-step pictorial recipe for visual learners and a fascinating (for dessert nerds, anyway) post about the science of pie.
Crust conundrum solved, I moved on to filling. First stop, a recipe from Bon Appetit on epicurious.com. Actually, my first stop was picking up strawberries and rhubarb at the market—as it turned out, I had too much of the former and not enough of the latter. But I pressed on and turned out a delicious, but spectacularly runny pie. Miraculously, the crust stayed crisp.
So back to the Internet to search for “strawberry rhubarb pie not runny.” Which turned up a Smitten Kitchen post entitled “Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, Improved.” Lo and behold, it was the same recipe, with a few simple swaps. I opted to disregard a few of her changes (cut down on the sugar, substitute lemon juice for cinnamon) but swapped out the cornstarch for instant tapioca pearls in hope of reducing the juice. The original recipe called for a total cooking time of 1:45, but I took my first pie out about thirty minutes early. The Smitten Kitchen version advised 50 minutes, so I split the difference and called my second pie done in an hour. Unfortunately, it was not. Nor was it less runny—probably because I erred on the side of adding more strawberries again.
After trying a slice, I popped the pie back in the oven trying to remedy the under-baked pastry dough situation. I checked it after 10 minutes, after 20 minutes, after 30 minutes. There was no discernible change, so I gave up. Is there some rule that once you remove a pie from the oven, it will not get any more done no matter how long you cook it?
As luck would have it, I then got an email from Cook’s Illustrated about strawberry rhubarb pie. But as my luck would have it, I clicked the link only to discover that access to the recipe required a membership to cooksillustrated.com. But I could see that the recipe had originally been published in May 2015, and I’ve never been so happy to be a magazine hoarder.
Like all Cook’s Illustrated recipes, this one provided detailed explanations of the process, which involved briefly microwaving the rhubarb and macerating it with some of the strawberries and sugar. Then you strain the liquid and cook it down with strawberries to almost a jam-like consistency. In theory, this sounded good. But by the time I got through the copious prep work, I declared that it had better be the best pie I’d ever tasted (while secretly hoping it wasn’t so that I didn’t have to go through all that work again). Luckily, or not, it wasn’t. Less runny? Yes. But the flavor was off. The freshness of the strawberries got lost in all the excess cooking time.
So I went back to the beginning. I tried the Bon Appetit recipe again, this time with proper one-to-one ratio of rhubarb to strawberries. I swapped out the cornstarch for instant tapioca pearls. And I traded the one teaspoon of cinnamon for one and a half teaspoons of a baker’s spice blend (cinnamon, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, star anise). I topped the pie with lattice crust (easier than it looks—check out King Arthur’s video), added a few pastry hearts, and baked the pie for an hour and 20 minutes to make sure the crust was done.
I waited an hour before cutting into the pie (an eternity in waiting-for-dessert years) and was rewarded with just a bit of goo escaping from each piece. By the next day, the filling had firmed up nicely. Beyond being not runny, this pie delivered the perfect blend of sweet strawberries and tart rhubarb in a crisp, buttery crust. And the spice blend made my tastebuds do a little happy dance.
When I asked my partner how this pie ranked among all the strawberry-rhubarb pies he’d tasted, he was flummoxed. “It’s not like I keep a list in my head. Do you remember what the best root beer you’ve ever had is?”
Me: “Yeah.” (Henry Weinhard’s.)
Him: “Ok, it was in the category of Very Good Strawberry Rhubarb Pie.”
Me: “Sigh. I guess I’ll take that.”
As I made my way down the stairs and back to my office, he hollered after me, “There IS no higher category.”
What’s your favorite summertime dessert? Any pie-making tips to share?