One of the things I love about food is that it has the power to take us to times and places that might otherwise be forgotten. It’s an all-sensory experience. You see its shapes and shades, feel its textures, hear its crunch and sizzle, smell the warm aromas and, of course, taste its layers of flavors. All those things can be wrapped up in experiences to be triggered by a bite, a lick or scent. Pimiento cheese puts me in a farmhouse in Ohio when I was ten; when I smell or taste beets, I’m instantly transported to summer camp where we dyed twine with its striking purple juice. Food is so much more than just fuel to get through the day; it’s a memory box disguised as cake, a casserole or taco.
A couple years ago, I heard John Stirratt of Wilco speak about eating on the road. His most memorable dessert was maple rhubarb pie. That’s a hard one to wrap my head around — I couldn’t figure out if it came in the form of a typical fruit pie or if it was something more complicated like a custard pie involving this misunderstood fruit. But now that it’s rhubarb season, I can finally make an attempt at recreating his memory.
Just about everyone has had strawberry rhubarb pie, but it’s usually the strawberry that gets the attention because rhubarb isn’t used in many other dishes. Frankly, I’m not even sure how rhubarb made it onto the dinner table. It’s extremely tart, and most closely resembles chard (minus the leaves because the leaves are poisonous). But unlike chard, it’s pretty unpleasant to eat raw — it has to be cooked down, massaged and paired with something that can tame the tartness — typically sugar and strawberries.
Rhubarb has been cultivated in the United States since the 18th century, but I rarely see it on menus. I did have it once with panna cotta and pistachios at Ruxbin in Chicago, but other than that, my experience with it has been very limited. I have made rhubarb upside down cake (delicious) and once made rhubarb butter sauce to go on chicken, but what I’ve learned is that It takes a whole lot of something else to make it palatable.
I have no idea what it was that Stirratt was served — there are few (if any) maple rhubarb pie recipes on the internet, so my interpretation is a tart because I can’t imagine rhubarb pie filling without strawberries to balance rhubarb’s hostile flavors.
For rhubarb, it’s almost impossible to add too much sugar, so the tart dough I used is pȃte sucrée that I (very loosely) adapted from the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. This is very French — it’s sweet and crunchy like a cookie to offset what I anticipate to be a fairly fruity, gooey filling.
Caveat: If you bake and don’t use a scale, I highly recommend it; it’s so much more accurate and makes measuring so much less complicated and recipes like this are much less intimidating — in this case, I used a smart scale by Drop, which is an excellent kitchen tool.
- 4 oz + 1 TB Flour
- ½ oz, 1 oz Powdered sugar
- ½ oz Cashew meal
- 2 oz + 1 TB Butter (unsalted)
- ⅔ Egg
With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until it’s soft and smooth (it doesn’t have to be cold!). Sift ½ oz of the powdered sugar into the butter and beat for another minute or so, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Sift together the remaining sugar, flour and cashew meal.
On low, speed, continue to beat the butter and slowly add the dry ingredients until it looks like wet sand. Add the egg to bring it all together. Transfer to a work surface and knead for a minute or so before forming a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least two hours.
- 1 TB Unsalted Butter
- ¼ cups Rhubarb, chopped
- 2 TB dark rum
- ½ cup maple syrup
- ½ tsp Vanilla Extract
- 2 TB All-purpose Flour
- ¼ cup Granulated sugar
- ⅛ tsp Molasses
- ½ cup All-purpose flour
- ½ tsp Cinnamon
- 3 TB Butter, cut into pieces
Preheat the oven to 375F°.
Roll out the dough. (It’s enough for one 8” tart, but I portioned it for three 4.5” tarts and used the scraps to make two 3” tarts). Lay out the dough on the tart pans, and press the dough around the edges. Line with parchment paper and fill them with weights (I used uncooked rice). Blind bake crust for about 10 minutes.
Pour the filling into the tart shells. Bake for another 10 minutes.
Sprinkle the topping onto the half-baked tarts. Return to the oven for another 20 minutes. It’s done when the filling is bubbly and the topping is lightly browned.
Set aside to cool. Serve with coffee and unsweetened whipped cream.
When I first moved to Chicago, I listened to Wilco’s Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot constantly. I don’t listen to them anymore, but when I hear Kamera or Via Chicago, it takes me back to a time and place I can’t forget and don’t want to forget… much like the Maple Rhubarb Pie does for John Stirratt. Though I didn’t make it a pie, it is a pretty incredible little tart and I totally understand why it stuck with him.