Early March: it’s an in-between time, not really winter and not quite spring. The leaves are still gone, but the birds are trickling back. Parkas and gloves wend their way into the closet, and out come jackets, sweaters, and soon, short sleeves. Away goes the butternut squash; in come artichokes and asparagus. And I follow a post about Brandon and Indian cookery with one about an ex-boyfriend and Americana. It’s an in-between time, but in the midst of so much juxtaposition, there’s bound to be something interesting.
If there is one thing to know about Nicho, it is this: the man loves a good pie. Weaned on his mother Martha’s lovingly made baked goods—breads and pastries alike—he knows a worthy one when he tastes it. Over the course of our brief courtship and the friendship that has followed, he has sampled many a sweet from my kitchen, but never that most prized of desserts. We have discussed the merits of various fillings, fats, and degrees of flakiness, but in my home, nary a pie has graced his plate. For my birthday last September, he presented me with a pie plate, and an implicit challenge. I did not venture a response for nearly six months—until early last week, when, with still-wet eyes and one hand waving goodbye to Brandon, I got a phone call. Saturday would be, Nicho reminded me, his birthday, and by way of celebration, he planned an early-evening dinner with friends and a few of his trademark treats: sausages, Swiss chard from the family garden, and a few titanic turkey drumsticks. Ever eager for an excuse to open the oven, I offered a homemade birthday cake—and with a subtle nudge, walked right into baking a birthday pie. So I scratched my head, looked to the skies, and by Saturday afternoon, arrived at rhubarb and orange zest.
When in doubt, in between, and in early March, it never hurts to straddle the fence where pie filling is concerned. Apples are last fall’s news; cherries are yet to come; and berries are prohibitively expensive. When we find ourselves somewhere between showers and sunlight, the clouds and the continental plates, the winter and the spring, it’s only fitting to take the two seasons in hand and stir them together between two buttery crusts. Winter’s oranges are on their way out, but in my kitchen, they send up a sweet, spicy welcome to rhubarb, whose sunny, rakish, rosy stalks are just beginning their seasonal revival. I speak for all of us present on Saturday night—including Nicho, who folded his approval into a goodnight hug—when I assure you that in-between is a very good place to find a successful pie filling, if not a season.
Fresh Rhubarb Pie with Orange Zest
Pies are more about assembly than anything. Once you feel comfortable working with pastry dough, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to churn out a very pretty pie. Because this one is, really, all about the rhubarb, be sure to choose good, fresh stalks. They should be crisp and firm—never flaccid—and if possible, choose ones that have a deep, pink-red hue: they will yield a more vibrantly colored filling. To make a relatively easy dessert even easier, let the pâte brisée—French-speak for buttery pastry dough—sit on the counter at room temperature for at least 20 minutes prior to rolling. I find that it is nearly impossible to roll out when still chilled from the refrigerator, so I wait until it feels just thawed enough to yield gently under the rolling pin. Do not, however, allow it to sit until it is fully at room temperature, or you risk having a heavy, not-so-flaky crust.
1 recipe Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
6 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
2 ½ to 3 tsp freshly grated orange zest
1 ½ pounds fresh rhubarb, washed, trimmed, and chopped into ½-inch slices
1 Tbs unsalted butter
Good-quality vanilla ice cream, for serving
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.
On a lightly floured surface, roll one disk of pâte brisée into a circle about 12 inches in diameter. Gently fit the round of pastry dough into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing it up smoothly along the sides. Trim away excess pastry from the rim. Slip the pie plate into the refrigerator for a few minutes while you prepare the filling.
In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, flour, salt, and orange zest, whisking to mix completely. Remove the pie plate from the refrigerator, and sprinkle ¼ of the sugar mixture over the pastry in the bottom of the pie plate. Heap the chopped rhubarb on top of the mixture. Distribute the rest of the sugar mixture evenly over the rhubarb; it may seem like a lot, but don’t be tempted to skimp. Cut the butter into a few small pieces, and disperse them over the filling.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the second disk of pastry dough into a circle 11-12 inches in diameter. Gently lay the round of dough atop the prepared pie, trimming away excess and then pinching and crimping along the edges to seal the top and bottom crusts together. With a sharp paring knife, gently cut three or four slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.
Place the pie plate on a baking sheet (for ease of transport), and slide it into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue to bake for another 40 minutes to 55 minutes, until the crust is lightly golden and the filling is bubbling up gently through the slits in the top crust. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve warm or cold, with vanilla ice cream.
Yield: 8 generous servings