The red rhubarb stalks, peeking between beets and carrots, are invariably the first sign that spring is around the corner. Even in sunny California (well, not so sunny this year) winter means restricted fruit options and, come March, when apples and pears have disappeared from the market stands and I can’t look at citrus any longer, the sight of rhubarb makes me excited. It’s a short prelude to sweet berries, with which it’s often paired anyway.
Rhubarb as an edible food is a fairly new addition to humankind’s diet – its first appearance in the kitchen can be traced back to 17th century England. But its medicinal properties were known as long as 5,000 years ago. The rhubarb plant originated in China and Russia, on the banks of the river Volga. Chinese rhubarb has always been more prized and its leaves (which are actually toxic if eaten) and stalks used for their medicinal properties. It’s a very effective laxative and was thought to cure all sorts of gastrointestinal ailments. Marco Polo, on his travels to China, was the one who brought it to Europe – it took a century before the plant was successfully grown in the western world which meant that it became a prized commodity, more expensive than saffron and cinnamon, when it was carted from the Orient on the Silk Road.
In Europe, rhubarb is mainly used to produce or add to digestive after dinner liquors – because of its bitterness, no one else but the English took a chance on cooking it. See, more proof that English food is not bad, it just got lazy and didn’t develop for a few centuries. Typically found in pies, rhubarb is seldom used alone. So this year, with my first 8 red stalks, I decided to try and make it shine all by itself.
I used the recipe crust from my November 21 posting (The Dreaded Pie Crust) – I rolled two disks and placed one on the bottom of a 10” pie pan, poked it a few times with a fork and I scattered over it the rhubarb, previously thinly sliced. I topped the rhubarb with one cup of sugar (this is the only time I will ever encourage anyone to use more sugar than it seems necessary – rhubarb is bitter after all), covered it with the second disk of dough and sealed the edges. I brushed the top with a bit of egg and water (or cream) mixture, sprinkled some Demerara sugar and baked it for about 1 hour at 350F. (or until the juices start seeping out from the edges – to prevent the juices falling onto the bottom of your oven, place a baking sheet underneath the pan).
That’s it. Dinner at a Pastry Chef’s house can easily consist of just desserts so two slices of pie with whipped cream and a cup of tea took the place of soup and salad. Sweet enough to satisfy anybody’s craving for pie but with a tiny core of sourness, it was just perfect. Come to think of it, what’s left in the fridge is softly whispering my name now….