Did you know that rhubarb grows in Sri Lanka? Neither did I. I don’t know why that's surprising to me. According to the Internet, rhubarb is probably native to Mongolia or Siberia. So if it travelled all the way to the US, why couldn’t it travel to Sri Lanka, which is pretty close, relatively speaking. But it’s kind of fascinating. Imagine the diverse landscapes of Siberia, Sri Lanka, and Maine, for example. Rhubarb can make it’s home in all of those places. She's just that adaptable. Weird and awesome.
As you know, I’ve been spending the last many months working on my cookbook. As part of my book, I’m writing some of my family’s stories. That means spending a lot of time with willing aunts and uncles, my dear sweet great aunt Kusum, who can’t understand my American accent, and my own parents, asking stupid questions and begging for the details of their respective childhoods. I’m not a journalist and I’m not so skilled at this part of the process. It’s awkward. But I can’t tell you how wonderful the experience has been thus far.
I think I’m pretty normal in thinking of my parents as parents first. They belong to me. Of course I know that they had years and years of life before I ever existed and I’ve always known the vague parameters of their youth, but I’ve had so much fun learning more. Tiny details. Rich stories. Hilarious outtakes. My parents are really funny. And speaking as their American kid, the intricacies of their lives in Sri Lanka before they moved to the States are so interesting to learn about. I thought I knew so much. But they’ve told me so much more.
I’ve been hearing a lot about my Dad’s family garden. That garden was truly something special. It had pumpkins that grew up and over the roof of the garage, vanilla orchid creepers decorating the patio, and plenty of bright red rhubarb stalks. Actually those are just three of the million things that grew so well on their land in Sri Lanka. (Think coconut, banana, cinnamon, cardamom, papaya, avocado, cabbage, pomegranate, passion fruit etc. etc. etc. I could really go on forever.) Rhubarb caught my attention. It’s ingrained in my American brain as an ingredient for pie filling. I learned that my grandmother used to cook it like a vegetable with plenty of savory spice, South Asian style. I'm sure, knowing how truly outstanding her cooking was, that that rhubarb dish would have knocked our socks off.
I only wish I had started this project sooner. I think about all the questions I have for my grandparents, none of whom are alive, and my brother, whose sense of humor would have been so wonderful as a part of these pages. So this post is a not-so-subtle PSA. If you haven't already, interview your family members. Write down their stories. I promise you’ll learn something neat. And maybe you can eat some rhubarb pie while you do it. Good times all around.
Maple Rhubarb Slab Pie
Serve 8 to 10
For the pastry:
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
6 to 8 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
6 cups chopped, fresh rhubarb
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons instant tapioca (3 T makes the filling slightly easier to handle but sets up a little stiffer. Your choice.)
1 teaspoon lime zest plus 2 tablespoons juice
1 large egg yolk
sanding sugar, for sprinkling
1. Make the pastry: In a large bowl, combine flour sugar and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until you have something that resembles coarse meal with a some larger pea-sized pieces. Add 6 tablespoons ice water and stir with a fork. If you can squeeze the mixture together in your hands you have added enough water. Add a little more if necessary. The dough will look shaggy. Knead the dough with your hands a couple times in the bowl to get it to start to come together. Tip the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap. Use the edges of the plastic wrap to help gather the dough and form it into a flat rectangle. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
2. Make the filling: In a large saucepot, combine all the filling ingredients and let stand 15 minutes. Transfer the pot to the stove and cook over medium, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb has broken down and the mixture is thick, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely.
3. Preheat oven to 400°. In a small bowl, mix the egg yolk with 2 teaspoons water. On a lightly floured piece of parchment, roll the dough out into about a 10x14-inch rectangle. Trim the ragged edges. (Pop it in the fridge to chill if it has gotten too soft.) With the short side facing you, use a 1/2 –inch cookie cutter to cut vent holes on the left half of the dough. Spread the cooled filling on the right half of the dough rectangle leaving a 11/2-inch border. Brush the border with the egg wash. Use the parchment to lift the left half of the dough over the filling. Use a fork to seal the edges. Using the parchment, transfer the pie to a baking sheet. Bake until golden brown and set, about 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly before slicing.