June 21, 2011

When Least Expected

Twice-Baked Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

Minnesota reminds me of the freezer, since this U.S. state freezes up well for half the year. The coldest I’d had, back then, was -35°C (-31°F). Its summer, however, comes by too briefly, lasting from June to August every year.

It’s no wonder, then, at the summertime I’d turn into a jolly girl who longed to be in the great outdoors. I was thrilled to put on flip-flops again, to unearth all my shorts and T-shirts from the pile of thick winter jackets and sweaters. I’d jog every day. I’d traipse around the neighborhood, in search of garage sales and thrift stores, hoping to snag good bargains on used kitchenware (which I did, and over the years, items such as used hand mixer and ramekin found their way into my kitchen). My Minnesotan summers were bursting at the seams with colors and life.

A Pond by Lake Bemidji
My first summer in Minnesota, back in 2007.

Since it’s far up north, Minnesota’s growing season doesn’t really hit until late May, which is when summer would shyly and slowly unfold itself. That’s also when rhubarb, commonly known as a spring crop, would pop up everywhere in the state. Rhubarb season is short, unfortunately, lasting only until early June (if I’m not mistaken).

Fresh Rhubarb
Stalks of fresh rhubarb from my American family’s backyard, back in the summer of 2008.

However common and cheap it is in regions like North America, Europe, and Australia, to most of my folks here in Southeast Asia, the rhubarb is probably unheard of. It first came into my world in the form of a pie — or pie filling, to be exact. I remember I got a little panicked, questioning myself, Rhubarb what? You don’t understand English? Rhubarb was a total stranger.

Back then, I didn’t even know how to spell the word “rhubarb.” Thank goodness, my American family taught me what I needed to know about rhubarb — the fact that its wide, green leaves are toxic and, therefore, must be cut off and not be consumed. What remains edible, then, is the stalk, and it’s very tart.

I’ve learned over the years that, when balanced off with sugar, lots of it, rhubarb actually makes for wonderful compote and fillings for crisp and pie, tasting both sweet and tart at the same time. I’ve also learned that rhubarb and strawberries pair up nicely, and I especially love that combination for my pie filling.

Jumble of Strawberries and Rhubarb!

How naïve I was, during the first months back in Malaysia, to believe that rhubarb should come as fairly affordable, and that I could get a hold of rhubarb, just as easy as I could of imported produce such as blueberries. (I did factor in rhubarb’s seasonality.) At some point, I almost gave up on the search. Not only was it tough to source, when I actually stumbled upon some Australian rhubarb, it also dawned on me that eating rhubarb is an expensive indulgence in this corner of the world!

Don’t let being broke get between you and food. The steep price of rhubarb in Malaysia must have crossed my judgment; my purse shrunk nonetheless, when I bagged home 250 grams of rhubarb on a January afternoon. And the next day, this slender baby found itself melded harmoniously with strawberries, filling the cavity of a crisp, flaky, twice-baked pie shell. (If you, like me, have been struggling with the fruit-pie conundrum, I suggest that you read the article by Melissa Clark, food writer for The New York Times, on perfecting flakiness for a fruit pie’s crusts.)

Twice-Baked Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

What seals my loyalty to this couple is their combined beauty: the refreshingly zingy fruitiness, very juicy and perfectly sweet while slightly puckering. It’s also got this gentle floral aftertaste that lingers in your senses, bite after bite. Thanks to the orange zest and cardamom, too, for injecting a mild spiced, citrusy warmth to a classic that supposedly celebrates spring’s arrival. How appropriate that is.

The strawberry and rhubarb pie I’d baked was out of this world, without a doubt, but it never made it to the camera. In the midst of transporting it, I watched the pie plate slide from the wire rack held between my hands and the gorgeous pie shatter on the floor. My heart shattered, too. I thought I’d never see rhubarb again, not at least until I revisit America.

Lo and behold, late last month I received this text message: “I bought some rhubarb. Would you like to have some?”

The surprise came from Veronica and her American husband Gary, both of whom I got to know through blogging and have remained close friends ever since. It turned out, as thoughtful as she’s always been, Veronica actually requested a grocer in her neighborhood to ship in some rhubarb, and she thought of reserving some for me. She even gave it to me as a gift.

Twice-Baked Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

I guess the 40-plus-kilometer drive was worthwhile. That Tuesday night I drove home, excitedly, more than 400 grams of rhubarb and close to two hours of good chat. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to smell and taste rhubarb again. Without them, I might still be struggling — even more painfully and on my own — with that episode of depression back then.

Veronica and Gary, thanks for the rhubarb, for the company, and for your support. In your presence, I can, on this side of the Pacific, smell and taste America again. This strawberry and rhubarb pie is for you, my friends.

The good things in life come when they’re least expected to. Why, yes!

Twice-Baked Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

Twice-Baked Strawberry and Rhubarb Pie
Adapted from Joy of Baking.com and Melissa Clark

Lard yields the flakiest and, in my opinion, most flavorful pie crust, ever. When I was in the States, lard was the only fat I’d use for my pie crusts, and I bought Armour brand lard for that. Now, because for-baking-purpose-only lard isn’t readily available in Malaysia, I’ve been using a combination of equal parts of good butter and shortening. Sometimes, in place of plain one, I opt for Crisco butter-flavored shortening, which adds more “buttery” depth to the crust (I ain’t cheating here!). An all-shortening pie crust, albeit flaky, to me, tastes dull and has that funny waxy note. Nonetheless, if possible, go for lard — its flakiest crust will have you swoon.

For the pie filling, I find that cornstarch produces a starchier mouth feel I less prefer, and at the same time, I’ve grown to love the lusciously silky mouth feel that tapioca starch brings to just about anything it thickens, so I upped the quantity and substituted the latter for the former.

You may also zip up the filling with ground cinnamon or ginger instead. I like cardamom better for its delicate citrusy-like perfume, which complements the orange zest, my own addition to the recipe.

For the pâte brisée:

700 grams all-purpose flour
60 grams granulated or caster sugar
2 teaspoons fine sea salt

226 grams shortening, cut into one-inch chunks and kept chilled
226 grams unsalted butter, cut into one-inch chunks and kept chilled

120 to 240 milliliters ice-cold water, or adjust as necessary

For the pie filling:

454 grams fresh rhubarb (note on handling to follow)

Freshly grated zest of one large orange
150 grams granulated sugar

454 grams fresh strawberries, rinsed, drained, hulled, and cut into four-centimeter pieces
50 grams tapioca starch
¼ to ½ teaspoon ground cardamom, to taste
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

28 grams unsalted butter, cut into nubs

For the glaze (optional):

Milk and Demerara sugar

To make the pâte brisée, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together (A). Then, cut in (B) with a pastry blender or fork or dull knife — working fast while the fats are still cold, especially on a hot day — until the mixture resembles coarse meals. Slowly pour in ice-cold water, work in just enough until the mixture holds together to form a dough that’s neither too sticky nor crumbly. Divide the dough into a bigger portion for the bottom crust and a slightly smaller portion for the top crust. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least two hours. I always prepare mine the night before, so that the dough gets to relax and chill overnight.

After resting and chilling the dough, get a 23-centimeter (nine-inch) pie plate at the ready, and retrieve the bigger portion of the dough from the fridge. Unwrap and lightly flour the dough, and then, on a well-floured work surface, with a floured rolling pin and floured hands, roll the dough out to a 0.5 centimeter-thick, 28-centimeter round — as long as it’s slightly larger than the pie plate, you’ll be fine. Make sure the dough, work surface, rolling pin, and your hands are well floured at all times. Now, gently fold the dough into quarters, and gingerly transfer it into the pie plate. Carefully unfold the dough, so that it’s now lining the pie plate. Brush off any excess flour. Trim, fold, and crimp the edges of the dough. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

After an hour, remove the pie plate from the fridge, unwrap, and set it on a baking sheet for easy transport. Dock the dough with a fork and brush it with milk and sprinkle all over with Demerara sugar. Partially bake it in an oven preheated to 200°C, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a light shade of golden brown. I personally don’t use, say, dried beans to weigh the puffing dough down during baking; I just let the dough puff — that’s how slack I am! However, if you, unlike me, want to properly bake the dough, simply line it with aluminum foil and weigh it down with dried beans before baking.

In the meantime, prepare the filling. The rhubarb should come with its leaves removed. Wash and pat it dry. Peel away the stringy outermost layer of large rhubarb stalks, if necessary, and then trim the ends, and cut into two-centimeter pieces. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, rub together (C) to unleash the aromatic oil in the orange zest, then throw in the rhubarb and (D) and toss well to combine.

Remove the partially cooked dough from the oven. Pour the filling into the pie shell and, on top of it, drop nubs of butter all over. Set aside briefly. Retrieve the smaller portion of the dough from the fridge. Flour the work surface, rolling pin, dough, and your hands. Roll the dough out to it’s about five centimeters thick. With a floured cookie cutter (of any shape and size), cut out pieces of the dough and lay them atop the filling however you want to. Brush the dough with milk and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Baking in the Oven

Still have the pie plate set on the baking sheet, bake the pie at 200°C, first for 30 to 35 minutes — if the edges are browning too much, cover with aluminum-foil ring — and then another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the crusts are of a darker shade of golden brown and the filling bubbles. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to let cool completely and to allow the filling to set. Serve it at room temperature, with softly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. I like it plain, though.

Note on storing: When wrapped in plastic wrap or sealed in a huge Ziploc bag, the pie keeps for up to three days in the refrigerator. Just reheat it in the microwave right before serving. Also, the pie freezes well.

Twice-Baked Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

June 10, 2011

Bittersweet Reverie

Easter sunset

I like to imagine the moments from each year lived written into a chapter, and, at my last breath, the chapters bound into a book. More of an autobiography, I would say.

Now I’m almost through the 24th chapter. During this stage, the roaring rocky mid-20s, I have millions of questions to answer and pages of stories to write. My life at this point, as I’d like to imagine, is a large sheet of blank paper, and there’s a pen hovering a few inches over, hesitatingly, unsure of what to fill the spaces beneath with. I don’t like the feelings of living in the dark: lost, insecure, and distressing. Having undergone weeks of gloominess and insomnia, I long for brighter days. I sometimes find myself living on bittersweet reverie of something French, chocolate, and dreamy.

Pots de Crème au Chocolat Noir

It’s been hard for me not to think about these pots de crème au chocolat noir. Probably it’s because, whenever I feel stressed, I crave sweets. It might also be because of my American best friends Becky and Ryan. They’ve been in Bangkok for over a month for an English language teaching program. We’re thankful for staying physically closer to each other again — from what was a 14-hour to, now, a one-hour time difference. Life has kept us busy, but lately we’re making efforts to visit with each other through video calls. Their words are keeping me company. And our promise of a week-long reunion in the near future is giving me something to look forward to.

Becky’s mere presence — even the sound of her name — brings back memories of my days in the States. Always. I was invited to spend the Easter weekend two years ago at her home in Prior Lake, Minn. We were both striving toward graduation, rushing madly to complete our senior theses. One would have guessed, Tsk tsk, Pei-Lin must have turned down the invite. I did, in fact, and in retrospect, it was one of the stupidest decisions I’d ever made. It took her one week to have my mind changed. (What were you thinking, Pei-Lin?)

When I was in Prior Lake the last time, the Fourth of July of the year before, we had huge outdoor feasts, and I baked two pies for dessert. This time around, I, again, jumped on the opportunity and offered to pull an Easter dinner together for her family. They know I love cooking and baking. And I love watching people enjoy the fruits of my labor.

We gathered six people at the Easter table. For the main course, I cooked a big kettle of chicken and vegetable yogurt curry to go with steamed rice. As for the dessert, I whipped up six martini glasses worth of French dark-chocolate custard. Because it required hours of chilling to set, I prepared everything the night before, and by the time I’d finished, it was already near midnight. Poor Becky, being an early sleeper, made herself stay up just to keep me company. I remember watching her doze off in the couch before the TV set. How can I not love a friend like her. She’s such a sweetheart.

Pots de crème au chocolat noir et fraises et macarons au chocolat
My first encounter with the dark-chocolate custard, circa April 2009, which would have to be just a couple weeks before Easter.

Let me tell you, I’d made this dark-chocolate custard a few times, and it was always a crowd pleaser. Traditionally pots de crème are baked in a bain-marie; this one, however, is cooked on the stovetop and then sets in the icebox. Perhaps it isn’t as French as it may first seem. Nonetheless, the recipe comes from a lovely Frenchwoman, Béa Peltre, who writes the beautiful blog La Tartine Gourmande. So, I’d say it’s still French, it’s a pot of crème.

This recipe makes a custard that sets beautifully and, upon chilling, gives a velvety mouth feel. It should not be confused with American pudding, which is usually thickened with egg yolks and cornstarch. Somehow I feel that cornstarch yields a slightly viscous gel-like concoction that I less prefer.

The custard isn’t cloyingly sweet, and captivates your senses with the slightly masculine, bittersweet note of dark chocolate. To serve, though optional, you can top it with softly whipped cream or crème fraîche, or fresh berries and slices of stone fruits for a summery touch. I’d tried dusting the custard with cocoa powder and dressing it up with macaron shells, dragées, and Valrhona crunchy dark-chocolate pearls. All of which amplify the chocolaty factor.

Well, oh well. Writing about this French dark-chocolate custard does feel like a bittersweet reverie. While I continue wrestling with writer’s block, with writing chapter 24, I’m glad I can thumb through the previous chapters and relive the moments from chapter 21, the year when I first made this delicious custard and served it to Becky and her family that Easter.

Oh yea, I can also remake these pots de crème au chocolat noir anytime I want to, especially when I’m in need of a good chocolate fix to cheer myself up. Maybe you should, too, you chocoholic.

Pots de Crème au Chocolat Noir

No-Bake Dark-Chocolate Custard (Pots de Crème au Chocolat Noir)
Adapted from Béa Peltre

120 grams dark chocolate, of 64 to 70 percent cacao content, depending on your preference, chopped finely

400 milliliters whole milk
100 milliliters heavy cream

6 egg yolks, at room temperature
90 grams caster or granulated sugar

½ to 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, to taste

Transfer the chopped chocolate to a double boiler or a heatproof bowl placed over a pot of simmering water — the base of the bowl shouldn’t be touching the water. Melt the chocolate completely. Set aside for use later.

On the other hand, place (A) in a medium pot and, over medium heat, bring to a gentle boil. Turn off the heat. Set aside for use later.

Place (B) in a medium-size or large mixing bowl. Beat until they look thick and pale. Then, slowly mix in the melted chocolate to incorporate well. Temper the hot milk-and-cream mixture into the egg yolk-chocolate mixture, making sure everything is combined.

Return the “chocolate milk” to the pot used for scalding the milk-and-cream mixture. Heat the “chocolate milk” over low heat, with a wooden spoon gently stirring at all times, until it’s thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Stir in the vanilla extract. Remove from the heat. If the custard doesn’t look smooth enough, pass it through a fine sieve.

While it’s still hot, pour the custard into individual glasses and/or ramekins, dividing evenly. Set aside to let cool completely. Once cooled, cover each of the custard-filled serving vessels with plastic wrap and refrigerate, for best results, overnight. The custard thickens more as it chills.

Yield: about six servings, or less, depending on individual appetite
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