For some, the beginning of spring is marked by budding crocuses and blooming daffodils. For me, it’s all about the rhubarb. After a long winter of baking endless nut, citrus, and chocolate cream pies, the emergence of those leafy pink stalks from the ground is a harbinger of the coming bounty of spring and summer fruits. Some wait until strawberries are in season a few weeks later to start baking with rhubarb, but I use it as soon as humanly possible. Toasted almond frangipane is a lovely, creamy foil to the tartness of the rhubarb, and adds an extra layer of flavor without overwhelming the star ingredient.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). On a lightly floured surface, roll out half of the dough into an 11-inch (28-cm) circle about 1/8 to 1/4 inch (3 to 6 mm) thick. Line a 9-inch (23-cm) pie plate with the dough, and trim the overhang to 1 inch (2.5 cm). Refrigerate the crust until ready to bake.
Make the frangipane filling: In a food processor, grind the almonds and sugar until they are sandy. Add the butter, then the egg, flour, and vanilla and mix until smooth.
Make the rhubarb filling: In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add the rhubarb and orange zest and toss to coat. Spread the frangipane over the bottom crust. Pile the rhubarb filling on top. Brush the pie shell edges with egg wash or milk. Roll out the other half of the pie crust into an 11-inch (28-cm) circle. Lay the dough over the surface of the pie. Trim the edges and tuck the dough inward or outward, pressing and rolling the bottom and top crust edges together. Crimp them into a decorative edge, brush with egg wash or milk, and sprinkle raw sugar over the top. Cut vents into the top crust to allow steam to escape.
Put the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, rotating once halfway through. Lower the temperature to 350°F (175°C) and bake for 30 to 40 minutes more, until the crust is golden and the filling is set (you’ll see thick juices bubbling out when it’s ready). Remove the pie to cool completely on a wire rack, at least 1 hour. This pie can be refrigerated for up to 1 week, covered in plastic wrap. Let it come to room temperature before serving, or warm it in a low oven. It can be kept frozen for up to 2 months: Cover it in plastic wrap, then in foil, and let it come to room temperature before serving.
Makes one 9-inch (23-cm) pie crust
Prepare the butter and lard, if using. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch (12-mm) cubes (a bench scraper is perfect for this, but a sharp knife works well too), and cut the lard into small pieces. Return them to the fridge to cool.
In a liquid measuring cup, stir together the milk and vinegar. Refrigerate the mixture until ready to use.
On a clean flat surface or in a large shallow bowl, toss the flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, sugar, and salt together lightly to blend. Add the butter and lard (if using) to the dry ingredients and, using the tool of your choice, cut the fat into the flour with speed and patience, until the fat has been reduced to small pea-sized chunks. Try to use a straight up-and-down motion, as the more you press on the flour the more tough gluten will develop. Avoid using your fingers, as the heat from your hands will melt the fat and further encourage gluten development. Unlike with pasta or bread, gluten is the enemy of pie dough, so be gentle, and be quick!
Once your fat has been cut down to size, spread your mixture out to expose as much surface area as possible. Gently drizzle about half of your milk mixture over the flour, trying to cover as wide an area as you can. Using bench scrapers or a large spoon, lightly toss the flour over the liquid, then spread everything out again, and repeat the process with the second half of the liquid.
You should now have a dough that will just hold together when pressed against the bowl, with visible little chunks of butter. If you need to add more liquid to bind it, do so with more cold milk, adding a tablespoon at a time until you reach the right texture. It’s not an exact science, as everything from the humidity in the air to the dryness of your flour will affect the consistency of your dough. Once you’ve reached your goal, cover the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour. The dough can be kept in the fridge for up to 1 week, well wrapped, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
From First Prize Pies by Allison Kave, Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2014.
Darra Goldstein is editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, an 888-page reference guide to all things sweet. "The book is really a compendium of human desires, a cultural history of desire for things that are sweet and what it has caused in the world, in both the realm of pleasure and also of pain," she says.