By Lesley Chesterman, Gazette Fine-Dining Critic
MONTREAL – It all started innocently enough, with two friends on Facebook exchanging opinions about strawberry rhubarb pie. “Grandma Zoe’s famous strawberry rhubarb pie is on the way …” wrote Joanna Notkin. “I’d actually dare to challenge you on that one,” replied her friend Hivron Turanli, obviously feeling a bit competitive about who could master the rhubarb-strawberry combination dessert.
A keen baker, award-winning oyster shucker, former textile designer and owner of the Zoe Ford catering company, Notkin has quite the talent for creating sweets ranging from classic cupcakes to fancy French macarons. Turanli, marketing director of the food-importing company Macchi Inc. is also quite the cook, and being a native of Sweden, offers a repertoire of baked goods unfamiliar to most Montrealers.
I’ve met both these ladies at food events around the city, and I figured their recipes would be winners. I piped in and offered to choose the best, eager to taste their takes on this early-summer classic pie.
They each arrived at my house, proudly carrying their creations, and after five minutes of chatting, I knew there was more to this bake-off than who has the better feel for pastry, or who has sourced the reddest rhubarb or sweetest strawberries. Both these pies have a backstory.
Turanli is Swedish, and her “Smulpaj” crumble pie is a common dessert in her homeland. The classic dish is made with apples and cinnamon sugar, but variations include apple/lingonberry, gooseberries, cloudberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, red/black/white currants, strawberries, rhubarb, or any other mix of fruits and berries imaginable.
Swedish crumbles, says Turanli, can be made either with a mix of flours with butter, or whole oats with flour and butter. “I haven’t found the right oats to use in Montreal yet,” she says. “The instant oats taste like paper, and the 5-minute oats are too coarse.” Even sans oats, this mix of sweet-and-sour filling with a buttery crisp crumble topping is divine.
Turanli’s recipe comes from her 6th grade home-economics class in Stockholm. “We spent three hours a week in a beautiful kitchen learning to execute recipes that were somewhat easy and also traditional,” she says. “Being a child who had an undiagnosed ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), it was practically impossible for me to follow any kind of instructions or recipes. But then there was this oh-so-forgiving crumble, ‘smulpaj.’ It was love at first sight, and the more creative I got, the better the results. What’s also so wonderful with this recipe is that if it ever turned out too dry, there was the silky vanilla sauce there to save a failed crumble. I have never served a crumble and had anyone say they don’t like it, nor have I ever seen a plate with leftovers on it.”
Notkin’s recipe has a rich pedigree as well.
She credits her family recipe to her grandmother, Esther Finestone (known to her inner circle as Zoe), who was famous for her cooking, especially her baked goods. “Zoe was a formidable woman and was a real do-er, “ says Notkin. “During her life in Montreal, she started a nursery school, ran the fine arts program at the Saidye Bronfman Centre and opened an art gallery on Crescent St. As a young child, I would love to go for a visit to her house in Westmount, which we referred to as the Old Cookie Farm for obvious reasons. She was the kind of woman who ruled the kitchen and would have no problem telling you to get out of it while she was cooking. French home cooking was her thing, but pies, cakes, tarts and cookies were always laid out in beautiful tins and jars on the counter. She really taught me how to speak to people through cooking – everything was so beautiful and well presented and always of the best quality.”
Tasting the pie, I sensed a great balance of flavours, with more of a rhubarb hit than Turanli’s crumble, which was dominated by strawberries. This is definitely one of those great homemade pies that make baking grandmothers like Finestone so cherished.
“The pie is sort of legend in our family and to our friends,” says Notkin. “It started at our summer house in Gloucester, Mass., a town near where Zoe was born. It’s the type of pie we’d eat after a big lobster dinner with lots of friends around. It’s also the kind of pie that a grandmother would make, never writing the recipe down. Pie to me is all about the fruit, so when the rhubarb is full in the back yard, it’s pie time. When it’s over, you dream about next year’s crop.”
Now that both rhubarb and strawberries are at their peak, try one or both of these beloved recipes. As for a winner: I call it a draw. When recipes have a backstory as good as these two, we are all the richer for it.
Swedish Rhubarb and Strawberry Crumble (Jordgubb och Rabarber Smulpaj)
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) white flour
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) whole wheat flour
- 7 tablespoons (105 mL) salted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) sugar
- 1 cup (250 mL) chopped rhubarb (about 3 to 4 stalks)
- 2 cups (500 mL) sliced strawberries
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) sugar
- 3 tablespoons (45 mL) potato flour
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230C). Prepare a 6-serving glass or ceramic pan. If you use glass, butter the pan and flour it lightly to prevent the filling from sticking. Slice butter into small pieces and mix with flour and sugar in a bowl, and with your hands, work ingredients into a crumble until crumbs are a mix between pearl- and pea-size. For best results, gather mix into a big firm ball and then roll the dough between the palms of your hands. It will then break into the perfect crumbs. You can also do this with a fork, which will take a bit longer, but you won’t dirty your hands.
In a bowl, toss together rhubarb, strawberries, sugar and potato flour and pour it into the prepared mould. Distribute the crumble evenly over the top to cover the fruit.
Place in the middle of oven, and bake for 20-25 minutes.
The crumble is ready when the filling starts rising and bubbling along sides. The crumble should be golden/brown. If it gets too dark before the fruit juices boil, cover lightly with aluminum foil for the rest of the cooking time.
Allow to cool for about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm with cold vanilla sauce or vanilla ice cream.
Swedish Vanilla Sauce (Vaniljsås)
Makes about 1½ cups (375 mL)
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 1/4 cups (300 mL) whipping cream
- 1/3 cup plus 5 teaspoons (100 mL) water
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons (30 mL) icing sugar
Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife. Scrape out the seeds and add them and the pod to a saucepan along with 1 cup (250 mL) of the whipping cream and the water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let cool. Remove the vanilla bean.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and icing sugar. Bring the cream back to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and add yolks while whisking steadily.
Keep whisking over low heat until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (do not let it boil). Strain the sauce into a clean bowl and place it in a larger bowl of ice water. Stir until it cools down.
Beat the last ¼ cup (50 mL) of cream to soft peaks and fold it into the chilled vanilla sauce. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
Zoe Notkin’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Serves 8 to 10
- 2 3/4 cups (675 mL) all-purpose flour (such as Five Roses)
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
- 1 cup (250 mL) chilled Crisco shortening cut into small cubes
- 4 tablespoons (60 mL) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) ice water
- 3 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups (375 mL) granulated sugar
- 5 cups (1.25 L) bright red rhubarb, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces
- 2 1/4 cups (550 mL) strawberries, cut to quarter-size pieces
- 4 tablespoons (60 mL) corn starch
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200C).
To make dough: Combine dry ingredients with a whisk to aerate. Add butter and Crisco and blend using a pastry blender or two knives in a criss-crossing motion until it resembles pea-sized crumbs. Sprinkle over the ice water and continue blending until dough begins to come together. Do not over-blend, and avoid touching the dough with your hands, which warms it up. Divide dough onto two pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and gather by using the ends of the wrap and your knuckles (touching it as little as possible) forming it into a ball. Wrap well and form into flattened disks. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.
To make the filling: When your dough is chilled through, place rhubarb and strawberries in a bowl and add the corn starch, tossing to combine until all fruit is coated.
To make custard: Whisk together eggs and sugar until very well combined. Do this just before adding to the pie.
To assemble: Roll out one disk of the chilled dough between two pieces of waxed paper that have been lightly floured, forming a circle about 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter; the circle should be 1 inch (2.5 cm) wider than top of pie plate, and about 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) thick. Gently remove top paper and gently turn dough into the pie plate. Gently remove bottom paper.
Fill the pie with the fruit and pour over the custard. Roll out the second chilled disk of dough the same way as for the bottom crust. Remove the top paper and cut strips about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide (if making lattice), or cut holes with ½-inch (1 cm) cookie cutter. Assemble lattice in an over-under method on the pie or turn cut-out crust over the pie and carefully remove paper. Leave a 1-inch (2.5 cm) overhang, but cut off any excess beyond that. Pinch the dough up around the pie and then, using thumb and first finger on left hand and index finger on right, pinch dough to form outer edge and seal the pie so that the custard does not run out.
Place pie in the oven on the middle rack for 10 minutes, and then lower the heat to 375F (190C) for a further 45-50 minutes. The custard inside should be thickened but slightly wobbly. Cool pie and serve at room temperature, or chill overnight, and let come back to room temperature for best taste.
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