If you are English and went to boarding school, chances are you will not be reading this. The soggy, stodgy mess that passes for rhubarb crumble at boarding school has put generations of schoolboys off their rhubarb for life. And it’s a damn shame, because properly prepared, rhubarb is a wonderful thing. There should be a little bite in it, there should be tartness and sweetness in harmony and a great, custard and a crumbly crust to hold it all together make this my absolute favourite pie!
I used to throw these together in between school hours, but when I recently made one, it was definitely not good enough to write about. I won’t say soggy bottom, but… So I made a new one this morning and I’m glad to say that I’m back in good rhubarb pie form. It’s an easy pie to make and the only thing that takes a little time is making the crust. You could buy a ready made one, but that would be cheating. If anyone found out. Rhubarb isn’t easy to come by in Malaysia, so the rare few times I see fresh rhubarb, it’s definitely pie day. Buy the biggest, fattest branches you can find. If the rhubarb is very bendy, soft or skinny, don’t bother.
makes one pie, ø: 25cm H: 3.5cm
For the crust:
- 250g plain flour
- 120g icing sugar
- 150g butter
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- 1 pinch salt
Make sure your butter is softened, so it is pliable. If the butter is too soft, the dough won’t hold together. Sift the flour and icing sugar into the bowl of your stand mixer, dice the softened butter into it, attach the paddle and process at low speed until the butter has been worked in and the whole thing looks like a bowl of crumbs. Whisk the egg with the vanilla essence and the pinch of salt and pour it into the bowl. Process quickly until the dough just comes together. Don’t work it too much, or you will lose the crumbly texture of the crust.
Divide your dough into two halves. Shape one into a ball, flatten the ball into a thick disc, wrap it in clingfilm and chill it. Shape the other half into a thick sausage, wrap it and chill as well. If you own a wine chiller, this will be the best place to chill the dough. Our chiller is set to 2º-3ºC, which is the way to go if you want your things to stay fresh, but it turns dough into a cannonball, so I put my doughs into the wine chiller. That is set to 12ºC, so leaving it in there for an hour allows the gluten to develop and still keeps the dough pliable enough to work easily.
Butter your pie dish very generously. Try to acquire one of those pie tins that have a removable bottom. It’s easier to remove the pie and it will help you when you need to roll the dough out.
Now to the only difficult part in the whole process; rolling out the dough. The way I do it makes it considerably easier, but it requires a bit of finesse to get a crust that looks even and is not too thick where it meets the base:
Step 1 – the bottom of the pie. Cut a piece of parchment paper the size of your pie dish and tape it to your work surface. Unwrap your disc of dough (keep the sausage in the chiller), flour it lightly and evenly and start rolling it out into as perfect a round as you can manage. Once it’s about the size of your hand (meaning you can flip it over with your hand), flour the top again evenly and flip the dough over. Flour the other side and continue to roll it out. Use the detachable bottom of your pie to check for size and as soon as your dough round (or not so round) is big enough, place the pie bottom buttered side down on the dough. Detach the parchment and flip the whole thing over. Trim the edges and drop the pie bottom into the pie tin.
Step 2 – the rim of the pie. This time you won’t need parchment paper. Flour your work surface as evenly as you can, unwrap the dough sausage, flour it and start rolling the sausage thinner. You need to do this gently and without too much pressure, or the thing will break. I find it almost impossible to roll in one piece, so once it get fragile, I cut it into two and roll each separately. Once you have a 2cm rope, you can start lining your pie. Quickly brush the edge of the bottom with a little water and squeeze the dough rope into the rim. Use more water where you are attaching the second part of the dough rope. Now all you need to do is squeeze the dough to make a neat, even rim. Try not to have too much dough where the bottom meets the edge. Prick the bottom of the dough all over with a fork and put your pie crust into the freezer for at least an hour.
For the rhubarb filling:
- 400g rhubarb, trimmed and diced weight (buy about 450g-500g)
- 200g sugar
- 2 small eggs
- 300ml milk
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
Preheat your over to 200ºC on a standard top & bottom heat. Do NOT use the fan forced setting if you can avoid it. As we are not blind baking the pie crust, we will need as much bottom heat as we can. Set the oven rack to the lowest position, as close to the bottom of the oven as it will go. My old Bosch oven didn’t produce enough bottom heat, so I actually put the pie tin straight on the bottom of the oven. There is so much moisture in the rhubarb filling, burning the bottom of the pie is not a risk.
Start by cutting the ends off your rhubarb and peeling it. I just peel it from either end and leave whatever fibers don’t pull off, unless there are brown bits. You can be precious and peel the whole thing with the tip of a sharp knife, but I usually don’t bother.
Cut each branch of rhubarb into 4 lengthwise, so you get 4 long, more or less even sticks out of each branch. Once all it cut, bundle the branches together and cut into about 1.5cm pieces. Put it all into a bowl and add the sugar. It’s a good idea to weight the cut rhubarb and then add ½ of its weight in sugar. This will seem like an awful lot, but trust me, you’ll need it. Leave to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Now you have a choice; You can pour off some of the liquid that has settled at the bottom of the bowl of rhubarb, or not. If you do, your pie will be a little drier and cut more perfectly, but you will lose out on some of the flavour. If you don’t, the middle of your pie will be wonderfully creamy, but a little soft. The choice is yours.
Break two eggs into a bowl, add the vanilla essence and whisk it all together. Pour over the rhubarb and mix well. Leave this to stand for ten minutes before filling the pie. Do not pour this directly into the pie tin, but scoop out the rhubarb first, then pour over as much of the liquid as you need. It’s not an exact science, so you will have some egg mixture left over.
Carefully carry the pie to the oven and bake for about 1 hour, until the filling has risen all over, the crust is golden and the smell is enticing. Leave the pie to rest for an hour before trying to take it out of the tin, or it will be too soft and brittle. Due to the high acidity and high sugar content, this pie keeps well at ambient temperature. Nevertheless, try and eat it within three days, or chill it as soon as it has cooled down completely.
When you are making any kind of pie, always freeze the dough after lining the pie tin. Make sure it is completely frozen and remains frozen and then put it straight into a very hot oven. This way, the dough will bake on the outside before it has time to melt and slip down the side, or lose its shape. You can make the crust a few days in advance, wrap the entire tin and keep the whole thing in the freezer until you are ready to fill and bake.