My absence for the past month has been largely inadvertent.
I didn't intend to wait until June to write again, but somewhere between leaving Beijing, watching Lucille graduate, and picking up fresh employment in Hong Kong, May disappeared like a conjuror's trick, roses to doves in one quick turn. There have been many, many items on the lists of things cooked and things eaten - croissants, cauliflower cheese, and a lovely lunch at Prune, to name just a few - but little time to sit and sort out my thoughts in writing.
I'm back, though. And I come bearing pie.
As much as I love playing with pastry, I don't bake many fruit pies. I like galettes and freeform crostata as quick, improvised desserts, but I can practically count the times I've made anything involving a pie dish and a top and bottom crust on one hand. The last pie I recall baking (about a year ago) had a fairly unremarkable mixed berry filling, and I did it largely for the fun of weaving a lattice top.
When I sighted rhubarb at the supermarket, right next to strawberries, my first thoughts were of crumble, not pie. A crumble is a very quick dessert, however, and I wanted the pleasure of making something more involved. The answer? Add pastry, and turn crumble into a pie with streusel topping.
Of course, there was some tinkering along the way: when making the pastry, I switched out half the water for brandy, and gave it folds and turns in puff-pastry fashion to produce rough, or blitz, puff pastry. Baked unweighted, "rough puff" rises like puff-pastry (though not to the same heights), but baked blind (weighted) in a pie dish, it produces a particularly crisp and flaky crust.
Rhubarb and strawberries went into a pan with sugar, vanilla, and more brandy. After the fruit softened, I strained the mixture, and reduced the extra liquid to a thick syrup. Finally, I mixed up a very buttery streusel with walnuts for extra crunch. After assembling the components, I slid the pie into the oven and awaited the finished product. Would I regret not following my original idea for a simple crumble?
The pie came out golden brown and bubbling, and filled the kitchen with the scent of butter and bright fruit. We cut slices while was still a little warm, the sweet-tangy filling soft and almost jammy. The crust turned out satisfyingly flaky, and the nutty, shortbready streusel gave it a certain Linzertorte-like quality. I didn't miss the crumble at all.
Note to self: when come back, bake more pie.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Walnut Streusel
(Inspired by Bobbie Sue's delectably tart, gingery rhubarb streusel pie. Makes one nine-inch pie.)
Start by making the pastry. In a mixing bowl, combine a cup of flour with a pinch of salt, and cut in one stick (four ounces) of chilled unsalted butter. Rub the butter into the flour until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Add two tablespoons cold water and two tablespoons brandy. Stir lightly until you have a dough that just barely holds together.
Turn the dough out on a sheet of parchment paper. Shape it into a rough rectangle, and top it with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll the dough out to a quarter-inch thick, and fold in thirds, like a letter. Turn the dough so that the seam side is down, and roll it out again. Repeat the folding process. Repeat the rolling and folding one more time, then wrap tightly in plastic film. Leave in the fridge for at least two hours to rest.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. In a small saucepan, combine one pound of rhubarb (cut into one-inch pieces), one-and-a-half pounds of strawberries (halved if large), a half-cup of brown sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, and two teaspoons of brandy. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb turns soft. There will be plenty of liquid in the pan.
Set a sieve over a bowl and strain the fruit. Return the liquid to the pan; transfer the fruit from the sieve to the bowl and set aside. Reduce the liquid in the pan over medium heat until it foams and turns thick and syrupy. Pour it over the fruit; set aside to cool.
While you wait, prepare the streusel. In a mixing bowl, combine half a cup of flour with two tablespoons of white sugar (double the sugar for a sweeter topping) a fat pinch of salt, and a few drops of vanilla. Cut in half a stick (two ounces) of chilled butter. Rub the butter in until the mixture forms sandy clumps. Stir in a quarter-cup of chopped walnuts. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave in the fridge to chill.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Remove the pastry dough from the fridge. Roll it out to fit a nine-inch glass or ceramic pie dish, and trim the excess. Prick the pastry lightly all over with a fork (don't pierce it, or the filling will leak), and weight with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the pastry until it's lightly colored, about twenty minutes.
Remove the pie weights. Spoon the fruit mixture into the pastry shell, and sprinkle the streusel on top. Bake until the pastry is a rich golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about forty minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm. A scoop of vanilla ice-cream wouldn't go amiss.