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An Unconventional Holiday: Pies, Tarts, and Crusts

A French Thanksgiving

The year was 1977. My parents, brother, and I were spending the year in Strasbourg, France. As the end of November neared, we started to think about how we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving. In discussing with friends, we realized something we should have already known, that Thanksgiving is American. No other country celebrates this holiday. In France the fourth Thursday of November is like any other Thursday in the calendar year.

The simple act of purchasing a turkey proved futile. As it turns out, turkeys are an American phenomenon. We located cranberries (also a North American thing) and pumpkin, and so a Thanksgiving feast was cobbled together.

In an unconventional situation, we made the intentional decision to pivot, to do our own version of this meal, Alsatian style, and use what was available in the bountiful French markets. A plump chicken became the entree. We filled in with locally available items. That year was an adventure, and the Thanksgiving holiday was in keeping. We had great fun making up our own French version of a meal that typically remains rather set in stone.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Our Minimalist Holiday

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I can’t help but remember that meal in France. This year, we are being asked to do something very different, to scale back our Thanksgiving celebrations. We must pivot and create a different sort of holiday.

In this spirit of minimalism, the idea of small bits or portions becomes an enticing concept. By creating small desserts just for you and those in your home, you can explore untried recipes. Consider venturing outside your comfort zone. Since this isn’t the year you are feeding 20 at the dinner table, experimenting is in order.

Single serving items such as mini pies or tartlets can be both fun to make as well as flexible for a small group. The individual nature of these desserts also make them ideal for sharing with others, be it neighbors, a family member, or a friend who is isolating and can’t be with loved ones this year.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Understanding Pie Crust

Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to make a tender flaky pie crust. The crust is the foundation of any pastry. I’ve obsessed for decades to perfect the flakiest and most tender pie crust. Let me begin by explaining flakiness. In any baked good, it’s the fat that makes for tenderness. When making cookies or cake, the softened fat incorporates into the mixture so that the particles are very evenly dispersed throughout the dough. This causes the end product to be evenly tender.

Plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes ready to go in the oven.

With a baked good that needs to end up flaky, you need to take some specific steps in the process of making the pastry dough. In this situation, you want the fat to stay fairly firm. You do not want it to be evenly dispersed but rather to remain in small pieces. Thus, when rolled out, it forms long, flat strips in the dough. There are variations to this dough, but this greater category is called laminated dough, meaning the fat is laminated throughout the dough. The same general concept applies to all flaky pastries, including croissants, puff pastry, turnovers, and of course, pie crust.

The finished plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes.

Much discussion remains in the pie crust baking world (this, most likely, consists of a very small contingent of people), about which type of fat to use, lard, butter, and/or shortening. For several reasons, I fall into the “all-butter” camp. Butter makes for a very flaky end product. This is because when baked, the water that is in the melted butter creates steam inside the dough, creating the characteristic flakes in your pastry. Secondly, butter tastes like, well, butter. And who can argue with that?

Making the Pie Crust

To achieve this flakiness, there are several steps that have to be taken. First, make sure that your butter is firm to the touch. Leave it in the fridge until just before you start to make your pie dough. The next essential step is to fill a bowl full of ice water. I do this at the beginning so the ice cubes can start to melt, making the water as cold as possible. After you prepare your water, mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Slice the larger portions of butter into tablespoon-sized pieces.

Allspice and cinnamon

Add these to the flour, mix with a pastry blender, two knives, an electric mixer, or even your fingers. Watch out on this step. Only mix until the fat is in pea-sized pieces. This can happen very quickly and you don’t want to over-mix. Next, add the ice-cold water. Again, be careful on this step to not over-mix. The dough should be just coming together, very “piecey” at this point. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and with your hands, bring it together into a ball. There should still be visible pieces of butter in the dough.

The Next Steps

At this point, I rest the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This resting allows the gluten to relax, making it much easier to roll out. To do this, I divide the dough into the amount I’ll need for rolling out later. Usually a single recipe makes 2 crusts, so you would divide the dough into two balls. I flatten these balls into disks and wrap with plastic wrap. Place them into the refrigerator. You can also freeze the dough at this point for use at a later time.

When it’s time to roll out the pie crust, simply place the disk on a floury surface, using a rolling pin, roll, starting in the center of the disk, working out in all directions. As you roll out the dough, you should see the little pieces of fat flatten into strips. This is what will produce flakiness. Here is my recipe:

Cami’s Pie Crust

Note: the water used can fluctuate by a tablespoon or so, depending on whether the dough is being mixed by hand or by machine.

Ingredients:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar, if desired
1 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons butter, chilled, divided into pieces
6 tablespoons (approximately) ice water, as needed

  1. Mix flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl.
  2. Working quickly, mix in the pieces of butter using a pastry blender until they are small pea-sized pieces throughout the dough.
  3. Sprinkle in the ice water several tablespoons at a time, working the water into the dough. Don’t overmix. Gather the dough into a ball, working in a circular fashion, form two disks. Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  4. Roll dough out on a floured surface, working the rolling pin from the center of the disk out toward the edges.
  5. Once the crust is rolled out, use it as desired, following the directions of the pie or tartlet recipe you are making.

New Thanksgiving Pie Fillings

The frosting on the cake, so to speak, for pies, is the filling you choose to put into your amazingly tender flaky crusts. I tend to gravitate toward the fruits that are in season at Thanksgiving. Many of these are unheralded, the reasons for which are beyond me. One of my favorites is pears. Pears are at their peak in the end of November with many varieties from which to choose. They create a delicate, creamy flavor when baked. Versatility is a key attribute as they move easily between hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Other fall picks you can include are apples, plums, quince, persimmons, cranberries, figs, kumquats, sweet potatoes, or squash. Just like pears, these all move easily across the spectrum of a meal. They are as perfect used in an appetizer, as a compote for a roast, as a topping or filling for a dessert. These cool days also lend themselves to the richness of nuts. Currently, I’m particularly fond of hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts. Incorporating one of these into a chocolate tart will solve most of the world’s problems. At least it will be a delectable distraction. I could go on, but you get my point. The options are as endless as your creativity. This is a golden opportunity for you to try some of these lesser known ingredients. You’ll be pleased and surprised at the ease at which you may usher a new favorite into your repertoire.

A Thanksgiving for Trial and Error

I’m not sure where the saying, ”As easy as pie” came from, probably from a grandmother who had been making pies for 50 years. It’s not actually the most accurate statement. A more honest saying would be, “Pie isn’t easy at all. It’s only a success if you have taken the necessary steps and perfected the art of the flaky crust”. That’s a less than inspiring saying and quite the mouthful. That said, this is the year to practice, to experiment, to pivot, to go out of your comfort zone. Your audience will probably be small, quite accepting of your creations, and possibly rather forgiving if you fall short of success.

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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.