Strawberry-Rhubarb Vanilla Cream Pie with Ginger-Oatmeal Crust

strawberry rhubarb

This is one of the first recipes that I can actually call my own and I’m darn proud of it! It’s so much easier to spontaneously throw together dinner or lunch without a recipe, not so much with baking. I was inspired by the rhubarb sundae at Earth to Table Bread Bar and it was the perfect dessert for a spring potluck. Sadly, the occasion was a going-away party for some of my parent’s closest friends that are retiring to island life in British Columbia. The entire night everyone reminisced and told crazy stories while passing salad bowls, mixing rhubarb cocktails, and feasting on dishes made with love.

cucumber + salmon + dill

I started with the essential spring vegetable/fruit rhubarb, correctly categorized as a “herbaceous perennial”, more usefully categorized as “confusing red celery plant that gets put into desserts instead of salads”. My mother loves rhubarb and we’ve been poaching harvesting from our neighbour’s garden since we moved into the neighbourhood. If you ever saw two Asian women in the rain waving large chef knives in the garden, it was definitely my Mom and I. Plenty of cars passed by and slowed down as we hacked away at the crimson stalks, safari style.

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Rhubarb is quite tart and most people add cups of sugar to balance that fresh pucker-inducing flavour. Sometimes people go too far and make it sickly sweet – what’s the point of even using rhubarb if you’re drowning it in sugar? Rhubarb is quintessential spring – it should taste fresh above all else. Adding strawberries to sweeten is much more appealing, in my opinion.

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Not everyone likes rhubarb though – it’s definitely an acquired taste. After years of rhubarb pies and compote I’m a fan for life, but just in case I decided to make a Strawberries + Cream version of the pie as well. It worked out deliciously with the rich vanilla pastry cream and the thick, nutty oatmeal crust. You could even use the oatmeal + fruit combo as an excuse to eat it for breakfast.

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Strawberry-Rhubarb Vanilla Cream Pie with Ginger-Oatmeal Crust
(adapted from Serious Eats, Dorie Greenspan, and Chocolate & Zucchini)

Bake the crust and make the pastry cream first because both components need to chill. While they’re in the fridge you can prepare the fruit. The pastry cream is finicky part of this recipe, everything else is easy! Feel free to add more crystallized ginger, you need quite a bit of it before the taste actually comes out.

INGREDIENTS
For the Crust
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 to 3 tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup butter (melted)

For the Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
1 + 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 + 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits at room temp

For the Topping
1 large box (~1 lb) of ripe strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced
1 kg (2.5 pounds) fresh rhubarb stalks
2/3 cup unrefined cane sugar (1 cup for a sweeter tooth)
10-cm (4-inch) segment of a plump vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract

INSTRUCTIONS
For the Crust

  • Mix oats, flour, cinnamon, crystallized ginger, sugar, and vanilla together in a large bowl. Pour melted butter over mixture and stir until completely combined. Press mixture into bottom and sides of pie plate (makes either one very thick crust or two normal crusts) and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the Pastry Cream

  • Bring milk to boil in small saucepan.
  • Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, whisk the yolks together with the sugar and cornstarch until thick and well blended. Still whisking, drizzle in about 1/4 cup of the hot milk – this will temper (or warm) the yolks so they won’t curdle. Continue whisking and slowly add the rest of the hot milk.

Put the pan over medium heat and whisk vigorously, bringing the mixture to a boil. Boil for two minutes whisking continuously and remove the pan from the heat.
  • Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let sit for 5 minutes, then whisk in bits of the butter, stirring until it is fully incorporated and the pastry cream is smooth and silky. Scrape the cream into a bowl and create an airtight seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. If you want it to cool quickly, put the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice cubes and cold water, and stir the cream occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled, about 20 minutes.

For the Poached Rhubarb

  • Trim both ends of the rhubarb stalks. Cut the stalks in 1-cm (1/3-inch) slices, unless they are pencil-thin, in which case you should cut them in 2.5-cm (1-inch) segments.
  • Put the sugar and 500 ml (1/2 quart) fresh water in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the inside of the bean with the dull side of the blade, and add them and the bean to the pan. Bring to a simmer, stirring regularly as the sugar dissolves.
  • Add a quarter of the rhubarb to the simmering syrup — resist the temptation to add more, the rhubarb won’t cook evenly if the pan is crowded — cover, and allow the mixture to return to simmering point. Once the syrup simmers, cook for just 1 minute, until the rhubarb pieces are soft (test with the tip of the knife, it should meet minimal resistance) but still holding their shape.
  • Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon, leaving the syrup in the pan, and transfer to a serving dish or container.
  • Repeat with the rest of the rhubarb, one small batch at a time. Add the syrup and the vanilla bean to the dish.

Assemble the Pie

  • Remove pastry cream from refrigerator and mix until smooth
  • Take chilled pie crust(s) and fill with pastry cream
  • Top with sliced strawberries and poached rhubarb, chill or serve immediately.

12 Days of Christmas Baking – Day Two: French Pear Tart

almond pear tart

I first traveled to France with my family for a month-long exploration of the beautiful country. We started in Paris, rented a car and wandered around almost every small town in Provence, walked by the seaside in Marseilles, dashed through the rain in Dijon, and toured many art galleries in Paris. Looking back, I realize this trip was where my appreciation for food began. France isn’t subtle about their food, for good reason – they know it’s the best. This was where I realized what real fresh bread was supposed to taste like, that there was more to cheese than brie and havarti, that it was perfectly acceptable to eat bread, cheese, and fresh fruit for all three meals because it was France. When we were in Provence my father and I would both wake up at the crack of dawn (still jetlagged) and drive our huge minivan through the tiny streets to find a boulangerie to buy fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Throughout the whole trip I was hopeless at learning French, but my proudest moment was when I was able to ask for “Une baguette s’il vous plaît. C’est tout, merci!”.

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spreading almond cream

The first time I walked into a pâtisserie I was blown away by the stunning variety of pastries – rows and rows of buttery croissants, pan au chocolat, meringues the size of a loaf of bread, marzipan in all shapes and sizes, and most importantly – the tarts. French tarts were a revelation for me. The crust wasn’t so much buttery and flaky but a sweet shortbread, filled with the most lovely things, from sweet pastry cream with summer fruit to bright lemon curd with a crisp brûlée. One of my favourite discoveries was the pear-almond tart. The almond filling ranged from custard-like to a nutty paste, but no matter what the texture it always complimented the sweet juicy pears.

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I was lucky enough to return to France on a school trip a few years later. We started our trip in a small northern town called Bayeux. Our first day in France we were able to walk around and explore the rainy streets for a few hours. I remember frantically searching for a patisserie right before we were due to meet back at the bus – I ran into the first one I could find, haphazardly pointed to a few tarts, and rushed out the door. In the back of the bus I surreptitiously unwrapped my sticky tarts while my friends chattered about how everything was so French!. 

The first bite was a pear-almond tart. It was perfect.

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Finally making this tart was definitely on my bucket list. It turned out spectacularly – the crust was the perfect cookie-like texture, the almond cream was toasted and chewy on the top, sweet and creamy on the inside. Using canned pears is apparently how the French usually make this tart, who am I to break from tradition? The recipe does give you the option of poaching fresh pears if you wish. Bottom line: make this tart. It is très délicieux.

FRENCH PEAR TART

Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS

Makes 6 servings

For the pears:

  • 6 canned pear halves OR 3 medium pears, firm but ripe
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 cups water, optional
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar, optional

For the almond cream:

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
  • 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 partially-baked 9-inch tart shell, made with Sweet Tart Dough (see below), at room temperature
  • Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, or apple jelly for glazing

Getting ready:  If you are using canned pears, you have nothing to do now.  If you are using fresh pears but do not wish to poach them, you have nothing to do now.  If you are using fresh pears and want to poach them, peel them and leave them whole.  Bring the 4 cups water, the 1 1/4 cups sugar and the juice of the lemon to a boil in a saucepan just large enough to hold the pears.  Add the pears to the boiling syrup, lower the heat so the syrup simmers and gently poach the pears until they are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes.  Cool the pears to room temperature in the syrup.

To make the almond cream:  Put the butter and sugar in the workbowl of a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and satiny.  Add the ground almonds and continue to process until well blended.  Add the flour and cornstarch, process, and then add the egg.  Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the almond cream is homogeneous.  Add the rum or vanilla and process just to blend.  If you prefer, you can make the cream in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a bowl with a rubber spatula.  In either case, the ingredients are added in the same order.  Scrape the almond cream into a container and either use it immediately or refrigerate it until firm, about 2 hours.

Getting ready to bake:  Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Have a lined baking sheet at the ready.  If you are using fresh (unpoached) pears, peel them now.  If you are using poached or unpoached pears, cut them in half from blossom to stem and core them; rub the unpoached pears with lemon juice.  Whatever pears you have, make sure to pat them dry – really dry – so that their liquid won’t keep the almond cream from baking.

Fill the baked crust with the almond cream, spreading it even with an offset metal icing spatula.  Thinly cut each pear half horizontally into slices, lift each half on a spatula, press down on the pear to fan it slightly and place it, wide-end toward the edge of the crust, over the almond cream.  The halves will form spokes.

Put the crust on the lined baking sheet, slide the sheet into the oven and bake the tart 50 to 60 minutes, or until the almond cream puffs up around the pears and browns.  Transfer the tart to a rack to cool to just warm or to room temperature before unmolding.

Right before serving, dust the tart with confectioners’ sugar.  If you prefer, prepare a glaze by bringing about 1/4 cup apple jelly and1/2 teaspoon water to the boil.  Brush the glaze over the surface of the tart.

Serving:  This tart goes very well with aromatic tea.

Storing:  If it’s convenient for you, you can make the almond cream up to 2 days ahead and keep it closely covered in the refrigerator, or you can wrap it airtight and freeze it for up to 2 months; defrost before using.  You can also poach the pears up to 1 day ahead.  However, once you’ve baked the tart, you should be prepared to enjoy it that same day.

Playing around:  The almond cream is a great companion for a variety of fruits.  It’s as good with summer fruits, like apricots or peaches, as it is with autumn’s apples.

SWEET TART DOUGH (Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS)

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 ounces) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk

To make the dough:  Put the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine.  Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut in coarsely – you’ll have pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and pea-size pieces and that’s just fine.  Stir the egg, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition.  When the egg is in, process in long pulses – about 10 seconds each – until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds.  Just before your reaches this clumpy stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change – heads up.  Turn the dough out onto a work surface.

Very lightly and sparingly – make that very, very lightly and sparingly – knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing.

If you want to press the dough into a tart pan, now is the time to do it.

If you want to chill the dough and roll it out later (doable, but fussier than pressing), gather the dough into a ball (you might have to use a little more pressure than you used to mix in dry bits, because you do want the ball to be just this side of cohesive), flatten it into a disk, wrap it well and chill it for at least 2 hours or for up to 1 day.

To make a press-in crust:  Butter the tart pan and press the dough evenly along the bottom and up the sides of the pan.  Don’t be stingy – you want a crust with a little heft because you want to be able to both taste and feel it.  Also, don’t be too heavy-handed – you want to press the crust in so that the pieces cling to one another and knit together when baked, but you don’t want to press so hard that the crust loses its crumbly shortbreadish texture.  Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

To make a rolled-out crust:  This dough is very soft – a combination of a substantial amount of butter and the use of confectioners’ sugar – so I find it is easier to roll it between wax paper or plastic wrap or, easiest of all, in a roll-out-your-dough slipcover.  If you use the slipcover, flour it lightly.  Roll the dough out evenly, turning the dough over frequently and lifting the wax paper or plastic wrap often, so that it doesn’t roll into the dough and form creases.  If you’ve got time, slide the rolled out dough into the fridge to rest and firm for about 20 minutes before fitting the dough into the buttered tart pan.  Trim the excess dough even with the edge of the pan.  Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

To partially bake the crust:  Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil tightly against the crust.  Bake the crust 25 minutes, then carefully remove the foil.  If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon.  Bake for another 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer the crust to a cooling rack; keep it in its pan.

Apple honey-bourbon caramel pie for Uncle W.

You know those uncles that you only see once a year, bringing you the coolest gifts and telling the corniest jokes? That’s my Uncle W. He has lived everywhere, from the busy commute of England to the pyramids of Egypt to…Kazakhstan (memorably described as “the armpit of the world”). His international lifestyle means I only get to see him during his annual visit to Canada, which happened to be right after I came back from school. I was beyond excited to start baking in my mom’s kitchen. It’s utterly luxurious compared to my student housing kitchen (ample counter space that’s clean? A huge pantry of well-organized ingredients? And most importantly – a brand new KitchenAid stand mixer?!). So when I called Uncle W. to ask him what dessert he wanted for the family dinner that night, I was hoping he’d go for something exotic or challenging, something that I’d been holding myself back from making during the school year. I was thinking “maybe a mango panna cotta, or salted caramel banana cream pie, or fruit flan made with frangipane…” and then he says “Oh I know! Apple pie!”

…apple pie?

“Umm…you just want regular old fashioned apple pie?”
“Yeah that sounds great! See you tonight!”
Click.

Well then. I offered the entire dessert world on a platter but the man still chose the ubiquitous apple pie. Who was I to say no? If I had to make apple pie he definitely wasn’t getting it the regular old fashioned way.

I used the Perfect Apple Pie recipe from seriouseats.com which I’ve been dying to try since it was posted. Kenji, the recipe developer, goes into the science of apple pie – the apples which give the best structure, enzymatic activity of apple juice, the secret to perfect pie crust. It all culminates in one of the best pies I’ve ever made.

But it wasn’t enough – this couldn’t be a normal apple pie, I wanted flair! I decided to introduce honey-bourbon caramel to the apples. Caramel and apples go way back, they’re like the people who have been friends since the fourth grade. Except now caramel has gone off to college in Kentucky and come back boozed up and ready to party. The bourbon cut the sweetness of the caramel and added complexity; I only added 2 tbsp and could barely taste it so next time I’d probably put in a bit more to bring out the flavour.

The golden pie crust was super buttery and flakey, shattering under my fork to reveal the spicy tender apples mixed with smoky sweet caramel. Needless to say, Uncle W. loved it and we all fought over the last piece. Nothing like family lovin’ to make your desserts taste better.

We ate the pie so fast I couldn’t get a picture of a slice

Easy Pie Dough (from Serious Eats)

Ingredients
•    12.5 ounces (1.56 cups) all-purpose flour
•    2 tablespoons sugar
•    1 teaspoon kosher salt
•    1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pats
•    6 tablespoons cold water

Procedures

  1. Combine 2/3rds of flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse twice to incorporate. Spread butter chunks evenly over surface. Pulse until no dry flour remains and dough just begins to collect in clumps, about 25 short pulses. Use a rubber spatula to spread the dough evenly around the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle with remaining flour and pulse until dough is just barely broken up, about 5 short pulses. Transfer dough to a large bowl.
  2. Sprinkle with water then using a rubber spatula, fold and press dough until it comes together into a ball. Divide ball in half. Form each half into a 4-inch disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling and baking.

Apple Honey-Bourbon Caramel Pie (adapted from Serious Eats and Sassy Radish)

Ingredients
•    3 pounds Golden Delicious, Braeburn, or other baking apples, peeled cored, and sliced into 1/4-inch slices
•    3 quarts boiling water
•    1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling over crust
•    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
•    1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
•    1/4 teaspoon allspice
•    1/4 teaspoon salt
•    1 tablespoon cornstarch
•    1 recipe Easy Pie Dough
•    1 egg white, lightly beaten

Honey Bourbon Caramel Ingredients:
•    1/2 cup brown sugar
•    1/4 cup mild honey
•    2 tbsp bourbon
•    2 tablespoons water
•    3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Procedures

  1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and place a heavy rimmed baking sheet on it. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place apple slices in a large bowl or pot. Pour boiling water directly over top. Cover and set aside at room temperature for ten minutes. Drain apples well and transfer to a large bowl. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. Add sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, and cornstarch and toss until apples are evenly coated. Set mixture aside.
  2. Bring 1/2 cup sugar, honey, bourbon and water to a boil in a 1 1/2- to 2-qt heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil without stirring, swirling pan occasionally so caramel colors evenly, until dark amber, about 5 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and add butter, swirling pan until butter is melted. Be careful here as the caramel will hiss and spatter. Pour over apples and toss (caramel may harden but will melt in oven – promise!).
  4. Roll one disk of pie dough into a circle roughly 12-inches in diameter. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Add filling. Roll remaining disk of pie dough into a circle roughly 12-inches in diameter. Transfer to top of pie. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim the edges of both pie crusts until they slightly overhang the edge of the pie plate. Use the thumb and forefinger on your right hand to crimp the edges of the two pie doughs together. Cut 5 slits in the top with a sharp knife for ventilation.
  5. Use a pastry brush to brush an even coat of lightly beaten egg white all over the top surface of the pie. Transfer pie to sheet tray in the oven and bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°F and continue baking until deep golden brown, about 25 minutes longer. Remove from oven and allow to cool at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving.