The pairing of strawberry with rhubarb appeals to those of us who are predisposed to tart over sweet. Both my mother and my grandmother spoke of rhubarb in reverential tones. In the spring, my mother would combine equal parts sweet fruit with tart vegetable, tossing the duo with a generous sprinkling of Domino sugar, grated orange rind, and the juice of one orange. The mixture simmered quietly in a deep-sided Farberware saucepan, just until the rhubarb became tender. My mother tasted it, closing her eyes for emphasis, dramatically puckering her lips, before transferring the compote to a wide mouthed blue mason jar. We devoured it by the spoonful for breakfast and occasionally spooned it over vanilla ice cream for dessert. The alchemy responsible for turning pinky green stalks and freckled berries into the flavor of spring was extraordinary. Unfortunately, strawberry rhubarb pie seldom made it into Jessie’s pie repertoire because she dismissed rhubarb as an overzealous weed. My father deemed rhubarb too tart, even when teamed with strawberries. Jessie kept the dessert peace by tucking strawberries between baking powder biscuits or sponge cake for my father, slathering everything with freshly whipped cream. She stewed rhubarb with strawberries for those of us who celebrated the arrival of rhubarb season and bemoaned its finale.
In the spring of 1980, I was living my very grown-up life in a very tiny apartment in New York City. Jessie had armed me with a hand–held electric mixer, a Hamilton Beach electric frying pan, and an assortment of bakeware. The kitchen was diminutive, boasting an under counter refrigerator and a Barbie-sized black and white stove. Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts followed me up the stairs of my 3-story walk-up, a book I had pored over for weeks in the local bookstore before finally making the extravagant purchase. Page 152 offered a detailed tutorial in the baking of Individual Deep-Dish Strawberry Rhubarb Pies. That recipe alone warranted the book’s lofty price tag. When the produce guy adjacent to the Port Authority set out bunches of rhubarb next to lopsided baskets of strawberries, I was all in.
Maida’s approach to the saucy fruit was to eliminate the bottom crust, which she assured me would be soggy. I listened to Maida, in the same way I listened to Jessie. Maida explicitly said I would need six ovenproof bowls, each with a 10-ounce capacity. My woefully warped kitchen cabinet held individual Pyrex custard cups and one 6” Pyrex glass pie plate. Pouring water from a Pyrex glass measuring cup in all of the dishes, I tried to figure out if collectively my bakeware would accommodate the recipe.
My ingredients gathered on the sole countertop available, an old bow-legged kitchen table that Jessie had relinquished after many years of service. The floor beneath the kitchen table was drenched from my comparative pan size analysis. The kitchen table was covered in little tufts of flour, remnants of piecrust fixings. I filled the pie plate and the glass baking cups with spoonfuls of orange-spiked berries and ‘barb, blanketing them with misshapen rounds of dough. Lining up the custard cups and the pie plate, it became evident that my oven was too small to accommodate a full sized baking sheet. Maida wanted me to place the pies on a jelly-roll pan. She was emphatic that the pan had sides. My jelly-roll pan had the requisite sides but would not fit in the oven. Placing the pie plate, flanked by two custard cups, on the top shelf, and the remaining custard cups on the bottom shelf, I closed the oven door and set the timer. I winced at the jelly-roll pan sitting on the kitchen table.
Maida assured me that after 30 minutes the tops of the pies would be nicely colored. She also told me the filling should bubble and might even bubble over. That sounded about right if you followed Maida’s instructions, but I knew thirty minutes in a custard cup was an eternity.
The unmistakable fragrance of rhubarb and strawberries wafting through the apartment lured me into a false sense of security. Maida Heatter, who had guided me flawlessly through the Queen Mother Cake and the Robert Redford Chocolate Cake wouldn’t let me down. When Maida promised on page 113 that her recipe for Lemon Cake was the Best Damn Lemon Cake, indeed it was. When Maida assured me that my strawberry rhubarb pies would not suffer soggy bottomed crusts, I listened. After 15 minutes, the glorious fragrance of spring had left the building, followed by the unpleasant smell of burning fruit.
It wasn’t Maida’s fault. She had held my hand through the entire recipe, guided me through each step with the patience and kindness of a doting grandmother. I looked at the book cover and there was Maida, hair perfectly coiffed, smiling that smile that told me everything was going to be wonderful. After scrubbing the runaway fruit and singed piecrust from the bottom of the oven and between the racks, eventually it was.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm