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The Biology of Baking: Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie


Remember photosynthesis—the process of plants turning the carbon dioxide into oxygen? Trees take the carbon we exhale and fashion it into trunks and branches. Our breath literally becomes something physical, standing there in the forest, waving its leaves in the breeze. Raising kids works much the same way. As I exhale, they grow. Sometimes, I think I can see Nina and Pinta getting taller as I sigh. I’m not saying that they are sucking the life out of me. No, not at all. Quite the contrary. Like the trees give us oxygen, they return love, and who can live without that?

But all this energy transfer leaves little time for the other things we used to do, like have a life. I’m not complaining, just observing, because one thing I’ve also noticed is that this often leads to disagreements—or so I’ve been told—about who is doing what around the house. I’m not saying I have any direct experience with these matters, but I’ve learned that when kids are growing up and two parents are working, everyone can feel like they’re doing too much. It’s as natural as photosynthesis itself.

According to older and wiser married folks, the solution is for each person to contribute 100% and forget about keeping track. That sounds good, but it is human nature to want things to be fair—at least according to my children (do yours do that?). Also, try as I might, there are just some things that I can’t do, such as baking.

I’d done a little baking—I make a fine cornbread (thanks to Sam Sifton) and I've had fun making pound cake—but cookies, cakes, and pies, are as confusing to me as organic chemistry. Santa Maria, on the other hand, loves to bake, and when she’s not buried under her work and domestic tasks, she takes to the oven. Actually, even when she is saddled with a a big work load, she will bake something, be it Hurricane-Watch Oatmeal Cookies, light and sweat Banana Bread, or a killer Almond Torte.

Rhubarb is in season now, and the other day I came home to a sweet and enticing scent, and there on the stove was a lattice-topped strawberry-rhubarb pie. Here’s her recipe. Note the sugar content. She likes her pies like she likes her men—tart.

Santa Maria’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Lattice Crust

  • -2 1/2 cups rhubarb (trimmed and cut into 1” chunks)
  • -2 ½ cups strawberries (hulled and sliced)
  • -3/4 cup sugar
  • -juice of ½ lemon
  • -1/4 cup tapioca

Trim and mix fruit with sugar and tapioca.  Let fruit mixture sit half an hour while you prepare the pie dough and preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  This is important so that you do not have hard little pellets of tapioca in your finished pie. 

For the Crust

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup butter
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup ice water
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • Plus 1 tablespoon sugar

Mix flour and salt.  Cut butter into the flour, until the largest butter lumps are the size of peas.  Slowly add ice water/vinegar mixture a tablespoon at a time and press the mixture together until it sticks together.  Wrap the dough in two separate bundles in wax paper.  Touch it as little as possible so your hands won’t melt the butter.  The lumps of butter within the flour are what create a flaky pie crust.  Stay at Stove Dad’s sister Eileen is the master of this delicate process.

Sprinkle flour on the counter. Press one ball of dough down on the counter. Roll it out with a pin until it’s just a few millimeters thick. 

Turn an 8 or 9 inch pie pan upside down, and place it on the rolled-out crust. Using your hands and/or a spatula, turn the pie pan and the crust over, so the crust is inside the bottom of the pan. With your fingers, press the crust into the bottom of the pan gently, and then use a sharp knife to trim any excess that might be hanging over the edge of the pie pan.

Fill the pie pan with the fruit mixture.

Roll out the other ball and cut the dough into half-inch or so strips. Weave a lattice crust over the top of the fruit mixture. Sprinkle with one tablespoon of sugar.

Depending on how deep your pie pan is, you may have extra fruit and or crust with which you can make delightful little tarts!  Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 20-35 minutes until your crust is golden and the ruby fruit bubbling through the lattice crust.

Serve with a glass of cold milk (or, for an extra treat, vanilla ice cream).

Note: I like my pies tart, so you will notice this has less than half the sugar of many fruit pies.

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