So you know that phrase “as American as apple pie”? A great phrase, sure. And apples were important in the history of our nation, what with Johnny Appleseed and all that whatnot. But our nation’s big day is July 4th. Notably, not apple season. But in most parts of the country, it is fruit season. Glorious fresh fruit season, where you bite into a berry that hasn’t spent weeks on a truck, the juices gush forth, and your eyes widen in a big “OH!” moment. And around July 4th, at least in my beloved Midwest, we are at the tail end of strawberry season. And if the farmers did it just right… the tail end of rhubarb season. Which means it is time for the ultimate of pies… strawberry rhubarb.
Now I know, I know, I can hear you objecting already. Everyone has their own favorite pie, and in the very personal world of food choice, pie seems to get people whipped into a frenzy. So feel free to disagree with me.
But… hear me out. Strawberries are these beautiful plump denizens of summer, all juicy and floral. They range from tart to sweet, and at the tail end of the season, you get these ruby orbs that are bursting with sweet early summer flavor. Rhubarb is the wonderful plant I grew up with in the garden, with the warning of “never eat the leaves, they are poison!” (Which is so intriguing and thrilling to a child!) Somehow those long bitter stalks turned into sweet gooshy crisps. And did not poison you.
In my first house I remember as a kid, the neighbor would take swaths of the giant rhubarb plants we had (they may not have been giant, I was a kid, so all things being relative…) and made them into pies, always sharing. She also let me pick raspberries straight off the vine, but that is another story.
Fast forward to many, many years later, where now I am a grownup and can make a mean pie crust. But now… I want the perfect filling. I love strawberries, but the idea of a straight up strawberry pie… not appealing. I have visions of it being a syrupy overly sweet mass, and for as much as I love baking desserts, I really do not like to be punched in the face with sugar. I loved those rhubarb pies of old, but they were also on the crazy sweet end from the dump truck of sugar traditionally stirred in. And I get it, rhubarb is tart, but it has a crazy tannic flavor all of its own, so why can’t we just enjoy it?
Enter the strawberry rhubarb pie. This is not a new idea by any stretch. It is a classic many love, and absolutely associate with summer, particularly these early parts where the days roll out long and lazy. But when I started researching recipes, I almost heard the beeping of the imaginary dump truck that was doing to back up and overwhelm the filling. It started to take on an eerie echo, and in my mind’s eye I started to see a filling of total goo, quivering and threatening to send every diabetic in the tri-state area into insulin shock. Which, in retrospect, was a little melodramatic. It’s really not THAT bad.
But of course, I didn’t want to put in all the sugar I’ve seen. I knew a lesser amount would still get me macerated fruit and a nice set on the filling, and I wanted the strawberries and rhubarb to shine through with their own flavors.
I started with the crust, throwing in a little cornmeal for crunch, and as a tribute, since it is a purely American grain. While the crust chilled, crisp green rhubarb was tossed with strawberries so ripe they were red all the way through. I added in a mere third of the sugar normally called for, some flour to help the juices coalesce into a proper filling, and a splash of balsamic to deepen the strawberry.
As I poured the fruit into the waiting pie crust, I kept thinking I needed more. Some part of my memory perked up in the background, reminding me of the various pies that have overflowed, and the wondrous fun of cleaning that up. I decided that filling it just to the top of the pie pan was fine.
A little over an hour later, and it was done. I burned a fingertip or two snatching a taste of the filling through the holes in the lattice crust, but I had found it. A pie filling that was sweet and tart, all at once. A filling where I could taste that sweetness of the berry, while a hint of bitter of the rhubarb rolled in the back, without my face puckering up as if I had eaten a lemon. Later I enjoyed a full on slice, the flaky crust lovingly cradling the succulent, velvety ruby filling. As I told you in the beginning, strawberry rhubarb is, in fact, the ultimate pie. I have proof.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Crust (using the Ruhlman 3-2-1 ratio method, so it is by weight)
2 oz. medium grind cornmeal
5 oz. whole wheat pastry flour
5 oz. unbleached all-purpose white flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 sticks (8 oz.) butter, cut into large chunks, kept COLD
4 oz. ice water
In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients. Using knives or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it looks like coarse meal and you only have a few pea sized chunks of butter. Start adding in the water (not all at once, the amount will vary based on the humidity in your kitchen that day), tossing lightly with a fork. Reach in and grab the dough. You will know there is enough water when you grab the crumbs you have made, squeeze, and realize it sticks together. Using your hands in the bowl, gather it into a cohesive ball, as best you can. Remove to a lightly floured counter and fold it over itself a few times, just until it becomes one mass. You don’t want to knead this like a loaf of bread. This is where I also like to employ a little fraissage, wherein you take the heel of your hand and smash it into the dough, smearing it away from the center, then gathering it back up, rotating the dough ¼ turn, and doing it again, just to really get that butter layered through the dough. It seems odd, but it does help it get crispy layers later on. Divide into two balls, pat them into discs about 1” thick, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour. I’ve let them sit overnight. Technically you are OK chilling for 20 minutes, but since I am using non-white flour, I give it more time to hydrate.
4 c. chopped rhubarb
4 c. sliced strawberries
¼ c. flour (or cornstarch)
½ c. sugar
splash of balsamic vinegar
Toss everything into a bowl, toss well, making sure every bit of fruit is well coated. Set aside and immediately commence the next part.
Remove the chilled dough and let sit for about 10-15 minutes, just to make it a little more pliable. Preheat the oven to 350. On a lightly floured surface, turn out one of the discs of dough and gently pat it down. You want it to still be chilled, but not so cold that it cracks when you try to roll it. Roll out the dough big enough to fill a standard 9” pie pan, with a little excess. I usually flip the dough a few times, adding a dusting of flour here and there, just enough to keep it from sticking. Place the dough into the pie plate. If it rips a little, don’t panic. Just nip a scrap of dough from the outer edge and patch it. No one will see! Now roll out the other disc of dough. I like to cut it into strips for a lattice crust, but you can keep it solid if you like.
Pour the filling into the waiting pie crust. Scrape every last juicy bit into the bowl. Place your top crust over everything, whether it be lattice or whole, and using a sharp knife trim to about 1” from the outer edge of the pie plate. I usually grab the two crusts and roll them in while pinching, creating a seal around the edge, then I go back and flute the edges with my fingers. If you are using a solid crust, stab a few holes in it with a knife, as it needs a place for steam to escape.
Place on the middle rack of the oven, and bake for roughly an hour, maybe a little more, until the crust is golden brown. The fruit will not dissolve into goo in this recipe, since I am using much less sugar, so you will see chunks of fruit. They will still be all delectably soft for pie purposes. Let it cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before slicing it. This will be a very long hour. Enjoy.