May brings fresh local rhubarb and thoughts of rhubarb pie. One of the first plants harvested in the garden, rhubarb, which is packed with vitamins and minerals, was a traditional spring tonic.
New England’s Shaker communities grew rhubarb for pies, preserves, sauce, tea, and even rhubarb wine. They bottled rhubarb chutney to sell. The prolific novelist and literary critic William Dean Howells (1837-1920) admired the Shakers’ expertise in growing fruits. In 1875, he and his wife, Elinor, rented a house from the Shakers in Shirley, Mass., for six weeks, visiting them often and attending the Shaker meeting every Sunday.
Howells had grown up in the New Church, a Protestant sect that followed the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Like the Shakers, Swedenborgians emphasized divine revelation rather than creeds and believed that the spirits of the dead are close at hand and that we can communicate with them. So Howells may have had a sympathetic understanding of Shaker belief in the spirit world and in divine truth transmitted by revelation.
Howells set two of his novels in a Shaker community to contrast Shaker spiritual and communal values with the materialism, individualism, and disorder of “the world’s people.” In his novel “The Undiscovered Country,” Shaker fruit expressed integrity: “They sat … sorting with Shaker conscientiousness and packing for market only boxes of honest fruit.”
Howells admired the Shakers’ generosity in feeding and caring for strangers without regard for their ability to pay. He described the tidy Shaker gardens:
“The canes of the raspberries and blackberries in the garden were tufted with dark green, and beyond the broad leaves of the pie-plant and the neat vines of sprouting peas, the grapevines on Elder Joseph’s trellis were set thick with short velvety leaves.”
Pie-plant is another name for rhubarb. I consulted a Shaker recipe for rhubarb pie that called for the stalks to be peeled before baking in a pie. If your rhubarb has tough, stringy ribs, peel these off with a sharp knife.
Shaker cooking emphasized fresh ingredients. “Do not cut the rhubarb until the morning it is to be used, or, if you have to buy it, keep it in a cool place,” Sister Mary Whitcher’s Shaker Housekeeper is quoted as having said.
Mix the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. Cut the butter into about ten pieces. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter and shortening into the flour mixture until the largest pieces are the size of small peas.
Drip the vodka and ice water around the mixture and stir with a fork until the mixture forms clumps. (Vodka evaporates in baking and helps prevent a tough crust.)
If you can gather the mixture together into a ball of dough that holds together, you have added enough liquid. If not, add another tablespoon of ice water. On a dry day, you may need to add 2 tablespoons of ice water to get a ball of dough that does not immediately fall apart.
Divide the ball of dough in half, flatten one half into a disk and the other into a square. Wrap each piece of dough separately in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
¼cuparrowroot or cornstarch or 6 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
1Tbsp. unsalted butter
Pie pastry for two 9-inch crusts
Trim off any vestige of green leaf (rhubarb leaves are toxic) and brown bits from the rhubarb and cut the stalks into 1-inch lengths.
Mix the sugar, cinnamon or orange peel, and the arrowroot or other thickener in a large bowl and toss with the rhubarb pieces. (I prefer arrowroot, which does not mute the flavor. Instant tapioca is not suitable for thickening lattice-top pies or open tarts without a top crust).
Let the rhubarb rest for 15 minutes.
Place half the pie dough on a floured surface and roll outward from the center in all directions to be about 3 inches wider than your 9-inch pie pan. Keep a spatula handy and check that the bottom crust is not sticking. You can lift the crust with a spatula and strew a little flour under the crust if necessary.
Work quickly so the butter doesn’t soften; mend any cracks with a dab of cold water and by adding a smidgen of dough or by overlapping the edges together. Roll up the bottom crust onto your rolling pin and unroll it over the pie pan, pressing it into the bottom corners.
Trim off any extra dough at the edge, allowing a ¾-inch overhang. Turn under the overhang. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to let the dough relax before filling.
Roll out the remaining square of dough into a rectangle. With a pastry wheel or a knife, cut either four wider strips or eight strips that are about half an inch wide. Refrigerate these until you are ready to fill the pie.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Pour the pie filling into the bottom crust and drop dots of butter over the rhubarb. Place half the lattice strips parallel over the pie. Weave the remaining strips perpendicular or diagonal to the first set.
Trim any overhang, press the strips into the edge of the pie and flute the edge of the pie crust. Bake the pie on a baking sheet covered with parchment for 20 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 25 to 35 minutes or until the crust is golden and thick juices bubble up.
Allow the pie to cool on a rack 3 hours to let the filling thicken completely (if you can stand to wait that long).