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#17 : Rhubarb Crostata (with Honey Ice Cream)

It's rhubarb season!

It has been a while since the last pie post...rather than being in the kitchen here, baking, Jeff and I spent a delightful two weeks in Europe earlier this month. We hadn't seen his brother Jed (who lives in the Netherlands) since 2018 and a visit was long overdue. Prior to that we spent a delicious week in Paris, walking everywhere, seeing several smaller museums (we still have yet to see the Louvre with its mile-long entry lines) and eating way too much, if that's even possible. I discovered a fantastic little bakery Brigat (which I have dubbed the best bakery in Paris; we may need to test that "best bakery" theory on future visits) where they make dazzling little tarlets in flavors like citron and passion fruit. I'll certainly be trying to replicate that delectable passion fruit tart here.

Did you know that Marie Callender (of frozen fruit pie fame), unlike the fictional Betty Crocker, was an actual person? She started out as a home baker in the 1950's, and began selling pies (like Mildred Pierce in the old Joan Crawford movie and Mildred Fierce in the hilarious Carol Burnett show parody - just the words "Mildred's FatBurgers" still make me laugh). With the help of her family she started restaurants in the 1960s, with basics like chicken fried steak and spaghetti and meatballs but always with a choice of pies for dessert. The frozen pies are still found in supermarkets and there are still 27 Marie Callender's restaurants on the West coast today.

As a kid growing up in Livermore, California, I remember hours and hours spent in the car as my parents drove to visit family in the San José area (seeing grandparents on both sides, aunts, uncles and cousins) seemingly every single weekend (except for the weekends when those family members instead came up to visit us at our house). Constant eating, drinking, games, parties with my dad playing his accordion, and nonstop food. After trips to see Nana and Grandpa Kransky, I vividly recall stopping regularly at Marie Callender's and my dad would always order the spaghetti with meatballs followed by rhubarb pie, which I tried once and thought was really gross. Aren't pies supposed to taste sweet? I'm pretty sure I instead indulged in the strawberry pie, with its bright berries drowning in mounds of sweetened whipped cream.

But tastes change, and hopefully improve, as we get older, and somewhere along the way, when cloyingly sweet Oreo cookies and Hostess Twinkies started to become less appealing, I revisited rhubarb again (which you may know is a vegetable rather than a fruit) and was blown away by the sweet/tart aspects of it. Most folks pair it with strawberry (to bring out the sweetness) and while I do enjoy that pairing, I admit I'm partial to rhubarb on its own, in a compote, pie or even ice cream - just be sure you add enough sugar to make up for the quite tart flavor. I found the recipe below in Joanne Weir's Kitchen Gypsy cookbook and decided to try it, making wildflower honey ice cream instead of chestnut (that was what we had). It turned out the honey-sweet ice cream was a terrific match for the tart rhubarb.

As is often the case, that recipe is not out there on the internet, but I found a similar recipe here from Ina Garten - note that she adds lots of raspberries for additional fruity sweetness, which you can do (or add strawberries instead, or just be brave and go for rhubarb alone.)

Or, you can find/buy the fun Joanne Weir cookbook/memoir which has the crostata recipe along with many other outstanding recipes, and lots of amusing stories of her early days learning to be a professional chef. The story of how and why she took her first trip to France is worth the price of the book!

The great thing about a crostata is that it's one large crust, rolled out into a circle, with fruit added to the center and then baked. No top crust, little fussing, and delicious. Just make sure to properly fold the outer edges of your crust to prevent the fruit from leaking out the sides.

My sister knows all the right things to get me for Christmas and birthday presents - not only did she send me my much-loved and well-used ice cream maker decades ago, but she more recently sent us a kitchen scale, allowing us to measure by weight, which assists with accuracy in recipes (no two cups of flour actually share the same weight). We now use that scale for everything from dry goods (flour and sugar) to even butter. It's wonderful to be able to weigh out the exact number of grams needed for pies and tarts!

With the dough made and chilling overnight, it was time to make the ice cream. I've experimented with many custard bases for ice cream over the years, made with egg yolks and without. Without is easier as it's tough to heat the egg yolks without scrambling them (which happened several anything more yucky that super-sweet scrambled eggs?) Finally I latched upon this recipe from America's Test Kitchen, which has no eggs and adds sweetened condensed milk. Adding a tablespoon or so of alcohol to the ice cream when churning (usually tasteless vodka, unless the ice cream will benefit from some added flavor from something like kirsch or brandy) helps prevent ice crystals forming in the ice cream, so that the ice cream remains softer. (Rather than putting it in a loaf pan, I refrigerate the custard overnight and the next day churn it in our ice cream maker for 20 minutes and then freeze overnight.)

Real vanilla extract can be really expensive and we use a lot of it. Jeff surprised me a few years ago with 12 Madagascar vanilla beans, a bottle of inexpensive vodka, and a mason jar, and we learned to make our own vanilla. Just clean and sterilize the jar, put the vanilla beans in it, and top up with vodka. The only trick here is time - you'll want to set the jar on a dark shelf in a cool (not hot) location, like a pantry shelf, for several months. Eventually you'll have your own homemade vanilla extract!

Here I am very gently scalding the ice cream custard with a vanilla bean I pulled from the vodka, squeezing out the tiny seeds; make sure to then pour it through a strainer to get rid of the bean pod.

Then chill the custard overnight and churn it up as early as possible in the morning (so that it's fully frozen for dessert that night.)

The Verdict: Have I converted Jeff?

Jeff in the past has tolerated (but not shared) my rhubarb obsession. Could be that the secret ingredient all along was honey ice cream, which he really liked. Also I've been baking my pie and crostata crusts on a baking sheet on top of our pizza stone, which adds an extra crispy crunch to the crust and bakes it a little more evenly. This one was a huge success. I have a feeling the honey ice cream is also going to be added to our dessert rotation.

Honey ice cream just might be a perfect match for future pies like strawberry, blueberry or nectarine...I'll make sure to let you know.

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