Happy May Day! My middle sister spent her college years at a small Seven Sisters school known for both its academic rigor and its fondness for Anglophile-ish, slightly archaic traditions (lots of teas there). On May 1st, the president of the college would ride into campus on a white horse, and students wore flower crowns and white dresses and sang hymns to the May before having strawberries and cream for breakfast.
White horses, sadly, do not have full representation in my part of Temescal. But the strawberries from just south of here are finally starting to get sweet (all that rain delayed the season somewhat). If you look, you can probably find some rhubarb, too. Any new kind of fruit is very welcome right now, during this season when the weather feels like spring but winter’s kales and citrus are still hanging on.
Remember that rainy scene in the beginning of Animal Vegetable Miracle, when author Barbara Kingsolver, in the first week of her locavore experiment, is despondent at the thought of returning home to her banana-less household with no fruit? Drenched by a spring downpour, she splashes through the farmers’ market and is rewarded at last with a beautiful bundle of red-stemmed rhubarb.
Unless you’re a gardener and an old-fashioned pie-lover, you’ve probably never seen rhubarb growing, and you might not recognize it even if you did. A perennial plant, it forms a low, leafy mound, with wide spinachy leaves the size of a hat. Look under the leaves and you’ll see long, reddish stalks coming up from the ground. Grip one firmly and pull it out. Trim off the mildly toxic leaf, and there you have it, a sour, sour stalk of what used to be called pieplant.
Still, it doesn’t take much sweetening to bring out its lovely tangy fruitiness, one that matches incredibly well with both strawberries and orange.
Lots of recipes tell you to put the rhubarb through all sorts of elaborate machinations before putting it in the pie. What a bunch of, well, rhubarb! Just cut it up, toss it with sugar and a little cornstarch, and you’re on your way to pie heaven. The only caveat is that rhubarb contains a lot of water, which the sugar will pull out, so you want to make your filling just before you’re ready to bake your pie. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of small pieces of fruit floating in a big puddle of syrupy liquid.
Don’t go overboard with the cornstarch; being juicy is one of this pie’s homemade charms. Vanilla ice cream is the perfect accompaniment.
Because this is a very juicy pie, it’s good to use a lattice crust to let the steam out. Yes, making a proper lattice does take some concentration and a little finger-dexterity, but I find the few minutes’ effort to be well-rewarded by the amazement this fancy-pants basket weave inspires. If, for some smart reason, your utensil drawer contains a little crinkled-edged pastry or ravioli wheel, now’s the time to use it. It will make your pie crust look incredibly 1950s-cute.
So, this is how you do it: Lay your longest strip of dough across the middle of the pie. Then lay another long strip crosswise across the middle. Lay another strip down next the first. Then lay down another crosswise strip, only weave it under the first strip and over the second one. Keep doing this, alternating vertical and horizontal strips, lifting the strips as necessary to get that cute under-and-over pattern. If your strip breaks, just jam the pieces back together or hide the broken parts under another strip.
You can make this either as one pie or six three- to four-inch tarts. In order to get the right crust-to-fruit ratio, I would use tart pans or ramekins that are at least two inches deep.