Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rum Rhubarb Chess Pie

Chess pies are custard-based pies, "the essence of Southern cooking," says Southern Living. Nobody seems to know why this pie is called chess pie. Perhaps it was served to some gentlemen who were playing chess. Perhaps not. Perhaps because it was very sweet, it was stored in chests, and the t in chest got lost in the Southern drawl, and the pies moved from being chest pies to chess pies. Really, nobody, or at least the editors of Southern Living, knows.
We do know that they are good and relatively easy to make. This particular pie contains rhubarb, as the title would indicate. Rhubarb originated in China, according to Wikipedia, and moved west on the Silk Road during the Middle Ages. It was used as a laxative, and was highly prized by traders. It came to the United States around 1820 to New England. It was known as pie plant because it was so often used in pies.
Rhubarb by itself is quite bitter. It comprises the long, pinkish stalks of the rhubarb plant, kind of like burdock.  It is usually stewed with sugar. Stewed rhubarb is either eaten as is, or is made into a pie filling. It seems to have passed out of usage in New England sometime in the 1950s or 60s. I remember being served stewed rhubarb at Center School in Sheffield, Ma. sometime between 1956 and 1960. I  also remember pointedly not eating it. I was a pretty tolerant child when it came to food, but if I didn't know what it was, and it didn't smell good, I wouldn't eat it.
However, rhubarb seems to have made something of a comeback with the blossoming of the farm to table movement. I bought mine at the Bethesda Women's Farm Market in downtown Bethesda. Sometimes it is available at Safeway or Whole Foods, and sometimes not. It is a seasonal vegetable, available in the spring. Wikipedia says it is grown in greenhouses which makes it available all around the calendar, but this does not seem to be true, at least in this area. Readers who have more familiarity with rhubarb, please write in and tell us your memories of it.
I made the pie for a Sunday barbecue requested by my daughter who had come back from the UK for a week. I had to make two pies because my husband Bob despises rhubarb in all its forms. His mother used to serve it stewed and it was "stringy and disgusting." We actually ended up with three pies, Rum Rhubarb Chess Pie, Apricot Pie and a lemon meringue pie brought by Allison, one of my daughter's friends from Girl Scouts.
This pie is easy, as pies go. I never used to consider pie particularly easy because I had problems with pastry. (I still do have problems with pastry. Hence, I am one of the world's biggest advocates for refrigerator pastry.) But this one, with its unbaked pie shell from the freezer case and its baked pie filling that does not require endless stirring and cooking over a double boiler, is pretty much a cinch. The rhubarb really does not have much taste. The raw rhubarb is just cut up and mixed in with the other ingredients. The rum and nutmeg predominate in flavorings. If you want to try a new vegetable in a neutral setting, go for it.

Rum Rhubarb Chess Pie

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs separated
1 cup rhubarb, cut into one half inch lengths.
3/4 cup plus two tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons dark rum
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 partially cooked nine-inch pie shell from the freezer case

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a mixing bowl and using an electric beater, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the flour and then the egg yolks. Stir in the rhubarb, milk, rum, salt and nutmeg.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them into the rhubarb mixture. Pour this into the pie shell and bake 45 minutes. Let cool before serving. Makes six to eight servings.

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