Thursday, February 22, 2018

Travel Interlude: FrankenWhiggish Rose, Resurrected and Resumed

Hello and happy Friday!  I've been out of town and away from my sewing machine, but air travel gave me a great opportunity to catch up on my neglected hand stitched applique project, the FrankenWhiggish Rose blocks that have been sitting untouched since last September.  The day before I left for New Jersey, I spent hours prepping my reverse applique tulips (freezer paper and starch pressed edges, glue basted to the block) as well as the little rosebuds that go around the center of the block (using Jeanne Sullivan's Patch Back product with fabric glue stick to turn the edges).

Prepared Edge Tulips Get Glue Basted In Place for Stitching on the Plane
While I was doing this, my husband was making incredulous comments like "When are you planning to pack your clothes?" and "Do you know how early we need to leave in the morning to get you to the airport?!"

I had previously needle-turned the reverse applique centers of these tulips off-block, but I made double-layer freezer paper templates to preturn the outer edges with starch before glue basting them to the block background so I wouldn't have to fuss with those deep V-curves on the plane.  I was able to pop the spotted reverse applique fabric through the diamond shaped hole in the center of each freezer paper template to hold the fabric in place while I pressed the seam allowances over the edges of the freezer paper.  

Using My iPad As a Light Box
Then for those tiny rosebuds, I downloaded a new Light Box app for my iPad and traced the rosebuds onto Patch Back (similar to Floriani Stitch 'N' Wash), cut a tiny turning allowance all the way around, and turned those edges with fabric glue stick before glue basting the buds to my block.  Now I had four tulips and four little rose buds to stitch down on my way to New Jersey.

Travel Interlude

Here are the highlights from my trip:

My Canine Nephew and My Sister, and My Dresden Plate Quilt
Meet Cooper, the most lovable pit bull mix on earth.  This is a dog who snuggles and cuddles, climbs up in your lap and licks your face, brings toys to tug and fetch, and has the softest, silkiest fur you can imagine.  If I thought I could have smuggled him onto the plane, I would have tried to bring him home with me (over my sister's dead body!).  

Princess Petunia In the Theatre, Following the Show
The main purpose of this trip was to drive into NYC with my sister and my soon-to-be-ten-year-old niece to see Sara Bareilles starring in the musical Waitress on Broadway.  We did a girls' day out in the city, starting out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where Petunia was scandalized by the naked statues with "man bits" right at her eye level!), ate hot pretzels from a street vendor, and then stood in line for an hour to get into the Stardust Diner for dinner, where the wait staff consists of aspiring Broadway stars who serenade you while you eat very expensive hamburgers.

Giant Sara Bareilles, Aunt Becca (Moi), and Princess Petunia
It was FREEZING COLD in the city, but we had a great time anyway.  I even managed to push my niece through the crowd gathered at the stage door after the performance, so Petunia got to meet Sara Bareilles and got her autograph.  I swear her smile was bigger than her whole face!

Back to my stitchery:

By the time I was ready to fly back to Charlotte, I had already stitched down all of the applique pieces that I had prepped before the trip.  Fortunately, though, I'd had the foresight to pack the green fabric, leaf template, and chalk pencils for my leaves.  I traced my templates onto my fabric with regular pencil this time, hoping it would smudge less during finger pressing than the chalk pencils do, but it ended up being really difficult to see so I won't be doing that again on this fabric.

My Pencil Lines Are Too Hard to See
There may be an impending Fabric Crisis with this project, by the way.  I bought this green fabric back in 2012(?!) when I first started this project, and I only bought a quarter of a yard of it.  I know, right?  Since there are sixteen leaves on each block and I have seven more blocks to make after this one, that means I need to get 112 more leaves out of that piece of fabric.  I highly doubt I can find any more of this fabric and I don't even remember where I bought it.

Sixteen Leaves Pinned for Needle Turned Stitching

Having stitched the prepared edge applique on my flight up to New Jersey and switching back to needle turned applique on my flight home, I must say that I really prefer the prepared edge stitching.  Yes, it's a pain in the butt to do all that prep work, but it's easier to place the pieces on the background accurately when the edges are already turned, and I like not having those little pins to keep track of when I'm stitching on the go.  I don't like my thread snagging on the pins, either!  

I'm out of practice and my first two needle turned leaves came out kind of lumpy.  I'm not even going to show them to you, so there!  Seriously -- I know that each one will get better.  I didn't finish stitching all of these leaves on the plane, so I'll be working on them while watching television with my husband in the evenings.  And I'm seriously considering switching to prepared edge applique for all of the remaining blocks.

But in the meantime -- I'm HOME AT LAST, and my sewing machines have MISSED me!  I have two different solos to prepare for this Sunday, so for the next few days I'll be alternating between working on music and piecing my Tabby Mountain quilt top.  Finishing that quilt was my goal for February, and here it is the 22nd already and it's only halfway pieced!  Perhaps I was overambitious in thinking I could piece AND quilt it in one month, but I'd like to at least finish the top and get it loaded onto my quilting frame before the end of the month.

So if you don't hear from me, I'm either busy SINGING or SEWING!

I'm linking up with:

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Loving Lent: An Annual Detox For My Soul

Me and My Friend Karen, Ash Wednesday Selfie 2015
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the official kickoff for the Christian season of Lent.  The silly Ash Wednesday selfie above is from a few years ago, before I chopped off my long hair.  (I'm the goofball on the left).  

Now, I love me some Christmas and Easter, don't get me wrong -- but Easter makes no sense to me without Lent in the same way that Christmas makes no sense to me without Advent.  And I wanted to talk about that today because there are so many misconceptions out there about Lent and what it means to Christians today.  In case anyone's interested, here's what Lent means to me.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout the forty days of Lent, we as Christians are called to take a long, hard look at ourselves in a ruthless magnifying mirror.  But instead of examining our faces for wrinkles, sun spots and blemishes, we're examining our hearts and our souls and taking stock of the many ways in which we have fallen short spiritually.  

"The Picture of Dorian Gray," oil on canvas, by Alvin Albright (1944), Art Institute of Chicago
Remember Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray?  It was about a handsome but morally depraved, evil man whose true character was reflected in a portrait like the one above (painted by Alvin Albright for the 1945 film).  The Bible tells us that we are ALL hideously disfigured by sin, just like Dorian Gray, and no amount of Botox,  cosmetics or Photoshopping could ever hide the ugliness of our sins from God.

Romans 3:10-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 as it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who has understanding,
        there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
    there is no one who shows kindness,
        there is not even one.”
Lent is when sin gets really personal, when we acknowledge our own brokenness, admit to ourselves and to God that we personally have an addiction to sin that we cannot overcome on our own, ask for His forgiveness and surrender to the gift of His grace and mercy. I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myselfI am the one who has sinned against God in my thoughts, in my words, and in my actions -- by the things I have done, as well as the things I should have done but left undone.  I have not loved God with my whole heart, and I have certainly not loved my neighbors and my enemies as much as I love myself.  

So on Ash Wednesday, the greasy ashes on our foreheads are a visible reminder of the brevity of our time here on Earth.  The ashes symbolize our repentance for our sin and our desire to be freed from our earthly desires and fit for eternal life in Christ.

Sounds like a bummer, doesn't it?  No trumpet fanfares, no "Joy To the World," no pretty poinsettias or fragrant lilies for Lent!  But there's still beautiful music, like the anthem "Create In Me" by Terre Johnson that our choir sang last night, based on Psalm 51.

Because we go into Lent looking inward and discovering that our hearts look like this:

My Heart At the Beginning of Lent
...and then, after forty days of reflection and prayer, we come out of Lent on Easter Sunday with a deeper understanding of why we need a savior so badly in the first place.  God loves us so much that, when we repent and seek His forgiveness and guidance in our lives, He takes our bruised, broken and battered hearts and mends them with His mercy and love.  

My Heart on Easter Sunday
Without Lent, Easter Sunday is just an excuse for new dresses, pastel marshmallow bunnies and hunting for painted eggs.  Meaningfully observing the season of Lent is a necessary catharsis that humbles us and enables us to begin to comprehend the magnitude of God's love for us.  The enormity of Christ's sacrifice, taking on the sin of the world, accepting the punishment for OUR sin, yours and mine, is awesome in the original sense of that word: Stunning!  Breathtaking!  Mind-blowing!  Overwhelming!  The gift of Lent, a time set aside for reflection and repentance, allows us to rejoice in the paradox that only by surrendering to God's will can we ever truly be free.

So...  How will I meaningfully observe Lent this year?  Am I giving up wine and chocolate?  No meat on Fridays until after Easter?

Well, if I really felt like wine, chocolate and meat were distracting me spiritually, I might give them up for Lent.  You don't have to necessarily give ANYTHING up for Lent to be a "good Christian," by the way -- a lot of Christians I know like to ADD something to their lives for Lent, like daily Lenten devotions, attending additional worship services, 40 acts of kindness or of charity...  Anything that makes them feel closer to God and more spiritually focused.  

"Cypresses," oil on canvas, by Vincent van Gogh (1889), The Metropolitan Museum of Art
I really like the Biola University Lent Project daily devotions.  I signed up to get them emailed to me every day throughout Lent, and each devotion has accompanying visual art, music, and poetry incorporating a broad range of styles.  The art and music really help me to connect spiritually and emotionally with the scripture and the devotional text.  Today's devotion was a reflection on Jeremiah 17:5-10, contrasting the bush withering in the desert (he whose heart has turned away from the Lord) to the tree with leaves of green, planted near the water (the man who trusts in the Lord).  The multimedia devotion included van Gogh's Cypresses painting (above), a poem by M. Vasalis, and a contemplative piano composition entitled "Methuselah Tree," by contemporary post-classical minimalist Keith Kenniff.  

So I'm adding these daily Lenten devotions, but not as an end unto themselves.  I'm using the devotions to help me stay focused on the season of Lent amid all of the shiny distractions and earthy mirages that lure us away from what is real, what is true, and what really matters.  One "golden calf" I know I'm guilty of worshipping is materialism.

I'm not talking about diamonds and furs and judging people by how much money they have...  I'm talking about my weakness for buying specialty quilting tools, patterns, books, magazines, baking gadgets, and ACTUAL material -- FABRIC!!  Now, baking, quilting and reading are not activities that threaten my relationship with God in and of themselves, but I'm thinking about how enmeshed these activities have become with our consumer culture and how much (or how little) of this stuff I actually need.  And I'm mindful of the warning in the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:16-21.  How close am I to tearing down my own barns  kitchen and studio and building bigger ones to hold all of my posessions?  So I'm going to try really hard to give up consumerism for Lent this year.  I'll still shop for groceries, but I'll be trying hard not to buy anything that we don't really need, at least for the next eight weeks.  No new baking pans, no new fabric, no new specialty rulers...  and no new shoes!  It will be interesting to see how that plays out and, by the time Easter rolls around, I should have a much better idea of whether and to what extent my relationship with instant gratification shopping has been spiritually compromising.  Let's all be clear -- I am not giving up shopping FOREVER!  In fact, in order to make it through eight weeks without "retail therapy," I will be including these food staples on my list of Lenten grocery necessities:

Wine and Chocolate: What I'm NOT Giving Up For Lent!
So, what about you?  Are you giving up anything for Lent this year?  If you are of a different faith that has a similar holiday or festival focusing on repentance and renewal, I'd love to hear about those traditions, too.  Happy Lent, everyone!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Design Wall Monday: In Which Tenacity Triumphs Over Tricky Triangles... And Rebecca Sings With Kristin Chenoweth!

Although I've been more consumed with Italian opera choruses than sewing over the past week (more on that later), I did continue working on my Tabby Mountain quilt in fits and snatches.  I have finally come up with a method for matching up those 30 degree triangles that gives me reasonably good precision on the first try, without slowing me down to a crawl.  My OMG (One Monthly Goal) is to get this one on the frame and QUILTED.  The month is nearly half over and I have some upcoming travel at the end of this week so I'm trying to keep my eye on the prize and resist my the temptation to get bogged down in pursuit of perfection.  

As of Sunday Afternoon
I have the whole quilt laid out on my design wall.  Despite the pattern directions to press all seams open, I'm pressing each row to the side in opposite directions.  I discovered early on that I have better visibility at points if I'm able to press each completed seam allowance AWAY from the next seam to be sewn.  So I'm working from right to left on rows 1, 3, 5 and 7, and I'm working from left to right on rows 2, 4, 6 and 8.  Those triangles that you see flipped upside down on the wall are the next triangles to be sewn in each row, so I've only sewn about 25% of the triangles together so far.  I flip the next triangle over onto the pieced section to which it needs to be attached and then take the whole thing to the sewing machine like that, to keep from getting confused about which triangle goes where.  It is NO FUN to sew a perfect seam, press it open, and realize that you sewed the wrong pieces together!

I've modified the marking template that I showed you last time.  Marking the ends of all three seams on each triangle corner was taking too long, breaking the tips off my mechanical chalk pencil over and over again, and was also fussy and fiddly, trying to stick pins through little dots to line the two triangles up for stitching.  Then I remembered the little notches on my isosceles triangle die for my Accuquilt GO! cutter, the same kind of notches that you find on garment patterns.  So I printed out the last page of the Tabby Mountain quilt pattern again at 100%, the page with the optional cutting template for those who don't want to rotary cut their triangles.  That template includes a blue dashed stitching line that I could see through my paper.  Holding the paper up to the window so I could see through it, I carefully folded each seamline in half so the points matched up, creating a perpendicular crease at the exact midpoint of each side seam.  

I've Marked the Seam Intersections in Green
In order for this to work, you need to be matching the seam intersections together when you fold the paper template in half -- NOT matching the points at the cut edges of the triangle.  I've marked the points I'm matching together in green on the photo above.  After creating that perpendicular fold line at the exact center of each side seam, I went over the fold line with pencil and then transferred those markings to my plastic triangle template as you see above.  The little dot at the end of my Sharpie-marked midlines on my plastic template represents the exact midpoint of each quarter inch side seam.

Skinny Channels Cut With Pattern Notcher
Then I remembered this nifty little pattern notching tool that I had bought for dressmaking patterns a long time ago (and have never used).  It's like a hole puncher except, instead of punching a hole, it punches a narrow 1/4" long channel, just wide enough for a chalk pencil point to draw a line.

See How the Chalk Line Completely Fills the Channel?
Now, instead of trying to draw and match up three tiny dots on each triangle, I'm just making one little alignment mark on each side seam.  To make it super easy to line them up, I mark my dash on the WRONG side of the top triangle, and I mark the line on the RIGHT side of the bottom triangle so I can see both sides at once when I'm matching them up.  It's much easier to line up two little ticks at the raw edges of the fabric than it is to try to line up three little dots that are inset from each triangle point!

Straight Edges Perfectly Aligned, Triangle Point 1/4" Away from Raw Edges
So here's how I lay these pieces out for stitching.  I've just taken this partially stitched row down from my design row and I'm about to add the Disco Kitty triangle with the blue background, so that piece is upside down (right sides together with the pieced strip):

I want to sew this with the new triangle I'm adding on the BOTTOM, though, next to my feed dogs -- otherwise I won't be able to see that seam intersection that creates the triangle point, and I really want to see that to make sure the seams are transecting at 1/4" from the raw edge.  So I flip the whole thing over, like this:

I've shifted the triangles slightly apart so I can see both of them at once.  Then I lay my plastic triangle template over my green triangle and make a little chalk mark in the seam allowance on the WRONG side of the fabric that is facing me.

See That Little Blue Chalk Mark?
And then I flip my template around 180 degrees and line it up with the exposed side of the kitty print triangle underneath:

Marking the Bottom Triangle On the RIGHT Side of the Fabric
See how I'm keeping both triangles facing the way they'll be sewn together the whole time they're off my design wall?  That way I can be sure I'm sewing the right pieces together, each one facing the right direction, without having to use sticky notes to keep track of what goes where.  I've got three different chalk pencils that I'm using -- pink, yellow, and blue, so I have a chalk that I can see clearly on any color fabric.

Pink Line Matched to Blue Line
Now I slide the marked edges back together, matching up those two chalk lines the same way I match the center of a quilt top to the center mark on the canvas of my quilting frame (don't you love how everything is connected to everything else?).

This works because I'm matching up the center point of the SEAM line, not the center of my fabric edge.  With the midpoint of one triangle aligned with the midpoint of the other triangle, the edges of those fabric pieces automatically get "jogged apart" by exactly the right amount every time.  

Pinned for Stitching
The other thing I wanted to show you is how I'm pinning these pieces together prior to stitching them.  I always pin quilt pieces with the points facing the raw fabric edges and the glass heads pointing to the left.  That's so I can use my 97D 1/4" patchwork foot with the foolproof screw-down seam guide that butts up against the right toe of the presser foot.  The first pint goes in right at the marked center point, and then I carefully smooth the two fabrics until the raw edges are aligned to the left and right of center.  I mark the two ends of the seam next, fill in with an extra pin at approximately halfway between the first pins, and then add an extra pin through just a pinch of fabric at the very tip of the intersecting triangle seams that I'm about to stitch, to keep them from wiggling apart before they reach the needle.  

Meet My Best Friend, Spray Starch
With the addition of these alignment marks, this quilt project becomes easy enough for a beginner.  The only thing to watch out for is that the long bias sides of these triangles are very easy to stretch out of shape, which is why I'm handling the triangles as little as possible.  I have no water in my iron, pressing the seams to one side without any distorting steam, and then I'm starching each seam immediately after pressing it, before putting the pieced unit back on my design wall.

MEANWHILE...  The only other sewing I accomplished over the past week was that I finished the reverse applique centers of all of the tulips for my eight remaining Frankenwhiggish Rose applique blocks.  I've been doing Old School applique for this project so far, needle turning the edges of each piece as I stitch them down, but I think I might switch to prepared edge with freezer paper, to hopefully speed things along. There are so many things I want to do, and so few hours in the day to do them!  I would love to show you my first finished block for my Queen's Garden applique BOM. Heck, I'd love to show you even a partially begun first block for that quilt, since Block 2 is due to be released any day now.  I'd love to show you a finished pineapple block, or something nifty on my quilt frame...

But instead, I'll just have to show you this picture of ME with Kristin Chenoweth, right before we sang together onstage in front of thousands of cheering fans on Friday night:

Oh, YES, That's Kristin Chenoweth!  I'm the Smiley Blonde on the Far Right
Okay, it's not QUITE so glamorous as that.  It's not as if she and I were singing duets or anything (I wish!).  Some of us VOX singers were asked to join Opera Carolina Chorus in singing with Andrea Bocelli at his concert at the Spectrum Coliseum -- hence my remark at the beginning of this post about working on Italian opera choruses all week.  Kristin is currently on tour with Andrea Bocelli as a Very Special Guest performer (that's how she's billed in the program) and we got to sing backup on one of her songs, too.  

My View From Onstage
Look at all those PEOPLE!!  I couldn't resist snapping this photo at the end of the concert (I would not dare to take a photo DURING the concert!)  The chorus was at the back of the stage throughout the entire sold-out performance.  I'm tall, so I was in the center of the back row of chorus in the Soprano section.  The orchestra is in front of us (those two gentlemen in the picture are percussionists) and then the featured artists (Bocelli, Soprano Nadine Sierra, Chenoweth, and violinist Caroline Campbell) were down in front.  

I just have to tell you all how beautifully gracious Kristin Chenoweth is.  At rehearsal, the other featured artists practiced their pieces facing the empty coliseum, just like they would do for the performance, getting used to the space, the sounds and lights, etc.  But when Kristin came onstage to rehearse with us, she turned around and faced the orchestra and choir.  She serenaded us with our own private performance, and posed for a few pictures as well.  She even thanked US for singing with her -- like SHE was the lucky one to be onstage with us instead of the other way around.  Isn't it wonderful to find out that someone as brilliantly talented as Kristin Chenoweth has a heart as amazing as her voice?

48 hours later and I'm still giddy!  Okay.  I'm off to accomplish less exciting things, like laundry and grocery shopping.  I'll be linking up with:

Monday, February 5, 2018

Food Science Detour: In Search of the Perfect Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Recipe

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with All Butter Crust
My current obsession with rhubarb pie is a Scandinavian-American, Midwestern cultural tradition that might be genetic, embedded deep within Norwegian strands of DNA.  Or perhaps my Rhubarb-Pie-Philia is just laced inextricably throughout my brain's insular cortex and hippocampustangled up in a powerful web of nostalgia with all of my happiest childhood memories.  As an exiled Minnesotan living in North Carolina for nearly twenty years, I hadn't thought about rhubarb in decades -- until my pastor, a fellow expatriot Minnesotan, mentioned rhubarb pie to me at our Christmas choir party.  And then the smells, the flavors, and the memories came crashing back like a tsunami!  I was like Rapunzel's mother at the beginning of the fairy tale, consumed by longing for ONE SPECIAL VEGETABLE!  But alas, rhubarb can't be grown much farther south than Illinois, and it's not so easy to find down here as it is up North.  Our Charlottean summers are too hot for rhubarb and our winters are not cold enough.  I've been scouring grocery shops for weeks in search of this elusive red pie vegetable, and none of them even had FROZEN rhubarb.  Then, just when I thought I was going to have to ask one of my sisters to overnight me some rhubarb for my pie, I finally found these gorgeous, ruby red stalks at the Blakeney Harris Teeter.  I was so excited that I bought way more than I needed for one pie -- I bought almost all they had, about four pounds for $28.  And now, let the wild pie-making rumpus begin!  

[NOTE: I am including the full, final recipe for my new favorite Strawberry Rhubarb Lattice Top Pie at the end of this blog post!  Go ahead and scroll down to the bottom if you don't feel like reading through all the details of my baking experiments and you just want the recipe!]

Rhubarb: Pie Treasure Fresh From the Produce Aisle!
There are rhubarb pies, rhubarb cream pies, and rhubarb sauces, and many other delicious ways to bake with rhubarb, but the most glorious way to bake with rhubarb is to combine it with fresh strawberries in a deliciously sweet and tart pie!

Rhubarb + Strawberries = Dessert Nirvana
I have made strawberry rhubarb pie before, but the recipe I used last time (decades ago) had a note scribbled in the margin to remind me that I was disappointed with the pie because it was a watery mess.  Thus began the Research Phase of this baking adventure.  Here's what I gleaned after perusing various cookbooks and trusted online sources:

  1. Strawberries and rhubarb have the highest water content and the least amount of pectin of any pie fruits (yes, I know rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but still), so a strawberry rhubarb pie is going to require more thickeners than other fruit pies.  Hothouse rhubarb, which you can recognize because it is a lighter pink color than the dark red field grown rhubarb, has a higher water content as well.  You can use frozen rhubarb for your pie if fresh rhubarb isn't available, but be aware that frozen rhubarb will release even more water during baking than fresh rhubarb, so increase the amount of thickener accordingly.
  2. The most common pie thickeners are flour, cornstarch, quick cooking tapioca, Instant ClearJel, and something King Arthur Flour sells called Pie Filling EnhancerEach thickening agent has its pros and cons, but cornstarch -- the thickener in my old strawberry rhubarb pie -- doesn't fully activate if you take the pie out of the oven too soon, before the filling is bubbling up through the crust.  
  3. Lattice top crusts can help fruit pie fillings to thicken up because they allow more moisture to evaporate from the filling during baking than a plain double crust pie with slashes in the top.
  4. Fruit pie fillings continue to thicken up as they cool, for hours after your pie comes out of the oven, until it has reached room temperature.  Even if you do everything else right, if you serve your pie too soon before it has completely cooled, it will be a runny mess.

My old pie recipe, the one that disappointed me, called for cornstarch and a plain top crust with a few slashes for steam to escape.  I don't remember whether I used fresh or frozen rhubarb way back when I baked that disappointing pie, but it's entirely possible that I took it out of the oven too soon and it's highly likely that we cut into it and ate it while it was still warm, before the filling had a chance to completely thicken.  So I now have several things I can do differently in hopes of a better outcome.  I could have just tweaked my original recipe, slashing more holes in the top crust, baking the pie a little longer, and waiting until the pie was completely cool to serve it.  However, I'm VERY INVESTED in my pie project at this point, and an acceptably non-runny pie is no longer going to be enough to satisfy me.  My old pie recipe had a pretty boring list of ingredients.  The pie filling was just strawberries, rhubarb, and sugar -- that's it.  No spices, no flavorings.  Surely some pastry chef somewhere has figured out a little something extra to kick this pie up to an even higher stratum of heaven.  I abandoned all other responsibilities, dedicating every waking moment to finding and mastering the best, the most perfect, the most amazing strawberry rhubarb pie recipe on all of Planet Earth!

The recipes on my short list for consideration were Rose Levy Beranbaum's Lattice Top Rhubarb Pie for Fine Cooking magazine (abandoned because no strawberries, and because I didn't want to introduce the cream cheese flavor of her crust), the King Arthur Flour star-topped Strawberry Rhubarb pie (rejected because they recommend using either the Instant ClearJel or their Pie Filling Enhancer as a thickener, and I couldn't find either of those ingredients locally).  I also considered using the Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Lattice Crust recipe from a pie cookbook that I've owned for years, Carole Walter's Great Pies and Tarts.  Ultimately, though, the two recipes that most intrigued me were Bon Appetit's Best Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie recipe by Chris Morocco and Fine Cooking's Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie recipe by Karen Barker.  Since I'd bought up all of the rhubarb in Charlotte, I had more than enough to bake both pies, so that's exactly what I did.

What were the differences between the two recipes that made it so difficult to choose between them without baking and tasting them first?  Let's start with the crusts.  Both of these recipes call for a plain top crust, but Bon Appetit/Morocco uses an all-butter crust with half of the ice water replaced by ice-cold VODKA and a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.  

Secret Pie Crust Ingredient, Chilling Out In My Freezer
Why, oh why is there vodka in this pie?  It seems vodka is about 60% water and 40% ethanol, which means only 60% of the liquid you're putting in your dough is working to develop the gluten that can make a pie crust tough and unappealing.  The ethanol mostly vaporizes during baking, leaving no alcohol flavor behind, yet the additional liquid helps your dough hold together better while you roll it out and assemble your pie.  Now, doesn't that sound intriguing?  I had to try it!

Fine Cooking/Barker's crust, on the other hand, was a more common butter/shortening combo with ice water, made in a food processor.  I've done most of my homemade pie crusts as butter/shortening combos, but never tried making them in my food processor before.  And my food processor even has a special dough setting.

Both recipes called for exactly the same quantities and proportions of rhubarb and strawberries, with a pound of strawberries to one and one quarter pounds of rhubarb.  However, the Bon Appetit/Morocco recipe is thickened with cornstarch, sweetened with a combination of white and brown sugars, and is flavored with vanilla and lemon zest.  

Rhubarb, Strawberries and Lemon Zest for Bon Appetit/Morocco Recipe
The Fine Cooking/Barker recipe is thickened with quick-cooking tapioca, sweetened with white granulated sugar, and is flavored with orange zest, a couple tablespoons of fresh squeezed orange juice, as well as cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.  

Rhubarb, Strawberries, Orange Juice and Zest, Spices and Tapioca for Fine Cooking/Barker Recipe
One of these pies was destined to be a gift for my Minnesotan pastor and his wife, who celebrated a birthday last week and who loves strawberry rhubarb pie even more than her husband does, so I didn't get to taste both recipes. 

I started out with the Bon Appetit/Morocco recipe and its all-butter vodka crust.  Another thing about this recipe was that it called for a 9" DEEP pie dish, with a special note that a deep dish pie plate was crucial for success.  I own several standard Pyrex pie dishes, but no deep pie dishes, so I sent my husband out in search of one.  He came back empty-handed from Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target, so we went to Williams-Sonoma together.  Williams-Sonoma did not disappoint!  

Emile Henry Ruffled Pie Dishes in Burgundy and Nougat
These Emile Henry glazed clay pie dishes are substantially deeper than my standard Pyrex pie plates and they get rave reviews from bakers.  They are also gorgeous, and the interior designer in me knows that everything tastes better when it looks beautiful!  I bought two of them even though the Fine Cooking/Barker recipe called for an ordinary 9" Pyrex pie plate, because I knew both pies had the exact same quantity of filling and fruit pies are notorious for bubbling up out of the confines of the pie plate during baking.  Also, these pie dishes are going to look so pretty behind the glass doors of my upper cabinets.  If Bernie wasn't with me to supervise, I might have been tempted to purchase the Fig and Azure colors as well...

Burgundy, Azure, Fig and Nougat Ruffled Pie Dishes from Williams-Sonoma
Well, now that I've baked with these pie dishes and know that they work as good as they look, my husband and sons can always get me the other colors the next time a gifting occasion rolls around, HINT HINT...

So, finally in possession of rhubarb AND the elusive deep dish pie plate, I was finally ready to begin baking.  I started with the Bon Appetit/Morocco recipe.  I was nervous about that crust, since I've had a rocky relationship with pie crusts in general and butter crusts are supposed to be more difficult to work with than shortening/butter combination crusts.  Surprisingly, though, this crust came together really easily for me and I had no trouble whatsoever rolling it out and moving it into my pie dish.  I used my pie crust bags to roll out the crusts, which was handy because the rolled crusts are supposed to be chilled in the fridge on parchment-lined baking sheets while you prepare the pie filling, but none of my baking sheets FIT in my refrigerator.  It was much easier and just as effective to just put the pie crusts on the glass shelf of my refrigerator, right in their pie crust bags.

All Butter Dough Rolled Out Effortlessly in Pie Crust Bag, Ready to Chill in the Fridge
These pie crust bags cost $6.95 each from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalog, and they are LIFE SAVERS for an occasional baker like me.  Savvy, experienced bakers who have made hundreds of pies over the years might scoff at my little zippered plastic bags, but before I tried these bags rolling out pie crust and fitting it into the pan was the the most stressful and disaster-prone part of pie making for me.  Now it's -- wait for it! -- as easy as PIE!  :-)  You just wipe down your counter with a damp rag (very important -- this prevents the plastic bag from sliding around when you roll out the dough), sprinkle four on both halves of the bag, set your disk of chilled dough in the center of the bag, and zip it closed.  Then you roll out your dough in a perfect circle without any dough sticking to your rolling pin, and after you've rolled it out, you use the bag to support the dough as you're transporting it to the pie dish so it doesn't break apart in transit.  Genius!

One interesting thing about this butter crust recipe is how they have you divide the dough in half for the two crusts, and then cut each of those halves into quarters (eighths) that you stack and then flatten, creating thin layers of fat within the dough.  As I was following these instructions, I was thinking about the similarity of this technique to the way laminated dough layers are made for croissants (which I've never baked myself, but read about here).  The resulting pie crust has streaks of butter that resemble marble veining.

Marbled Streaks of Butter in the Bon Appetit/Morocco All Butter Crust
Cool, right?  And when this pie went into my oven and began to bake, I swear my house SMELLED like croissants from an honest-to-goodness Parisian patisserie...  

Famous Pastry Shop Maison Collet in Paris -- What My House Smells Like When This Pie Is Baking!
But I'm getting ahead of myself.  After handling the dough minimally thanks to my pie crust bags and chilling it briefly, this crust released from the bag easily and sank down cooperatively into the pie dish like so:

Bottom Crust in Place, Filling Added
As you can see in the photo above, the Bon Appetit/Morocco filling is very dry when it goes in, with no liquid added to the fruit and the fruits haven't sat long enough to release any of their juices, either.  This is the recipe that uses cornstarch as a thickener.

Now, although my Bon Appetit and my Fine Cooking recipes both call for plain top crusts with a few steam vents slashed in the top, I wanted to try a lattice top instead based on my past experience with watery rhubarb pie and my research indicating that lattice crusts allow more moisture to evaporate during baking.  While I was shopping for pie dishes at Williams-Sonoma, I bought this faux lattice top cutter on a whim.  After all, cutting pie crusts into strips and weaving them on top of the pie isn't exactly rocket science, right?  But I do love my specialty tools and it was only $19.95. 

Lattice Piecrust Cutter from Williams-Sonoma
I am SO GLAD I bought this contraption, because as wonderful as butter smells and tastes, the lower melting point of an all-butter crust makes it finicky to work with and it will fall apart if it gets too warm.  This lattice cutter works like a giant cookie cutter, enabling me to create the lattice top in mere seconds and without touching it with my hands so the butter doesn't have time to warm up and start misbehaving.  Although this was an impulse purchase for me, added on at the register, I now consider it crucial for making a lattice top with an all butter crust.  You can't really tell from my photo, but the lattice cutter is actually a two-piece gadget with a bottom that lifts out to remove the crust without breaking it:

Two-Piece Cutter for Easy Removal and Transport of Lattice Top
Here's how I used this tool with my pie bag:

Using the Lattice Piecrust Cutter With My Pie Crust Bag
After chilling my rolled-out top crust, I unzipped the bag and carefully peeled back the top plastic.  I set the lattice cutter on top of the exposed crust and flipped the whole thing upside-down.  Now I had a layer of plastic on top of my crust, the lattice cutter beneath my crust, and the other half of the plastic bag beneath the lattice cutter.  I gently rolled my rolling pin across the top of the plastic bag until I could see the edges of the cutter peeking up through my crust, careful not to press TOO hard because I didn't want to cut holes through my plastic pie bag!  Then I peeled back the top plastic and lifted the lattice top out of the cutter by the handles, still without touching the crust, and flipped it over onto my pie.  The crust doesn't fall out immediately, so I had time to position it just right, and then I carefully eased my lattice crust off the cutter insert along the edges and away from the edges of the diamond-shaped holes with my fingertips.  Now, isn't that pretty?

Instant Lattice Top Crust!
(I was feeling ambitious and tried to decorate my scalloped edges with little pearls that I rolled from the diamond cutout scraps.  Bad idea -- when I rolled the scraps in my fingers to form balls, the butter started to melt and they came out looking like little turds.  They further lost their shape during baking, too.)

Both the Bon Appetit/Morocco recipe and the Fine Cooking/Barker recipe call for brushing the top pastry with an egg wash and sprinkling it with sparkling white sugar before baking.  I didn't have any sparkling white sugar on hand so I used Swedish Pearl Sugar instead.  We'll talk more about the egg wash later.  Here's what my Bon Appetit/Morocco Strawberry Rhubarb Pie looked like when I popped it into the oven:

Bon Appetit/Morocco Pie Ready for Baking
So pretty!  I was SO EXCITED!  And I've already told you how amazing this pie smelled as it was baking.  -- But alas!  Way back at the beginning of this post I told you that, in my research, I had discovered that underbaking was a common cause of Runny Pie Syndrome, especially when cornstarch or flour were used as thickening agents.  Moreover, I checked the use and care instructions for my new Emile Henry pie plates and found that food cooked in clay vessels tend to take about 10 minutes longer to bake due to "differences in heat diffusion."  Therefore, when I checked on my pie after the minimum baking time, I decided to give it 5 more minutes to ensure that the cornstarch was fully activated.  And this is what happened:

It Smelled SO GOOD, But It Looked SO BAD!
Oh, WOE unto me and WOE unto this over-browned, beginning-to-burn pie crust!  This pie isn't ruined.  It's perfectly edible and it still tasted delicious (my family and I gobbled it up), but it didn't look good enough to give away.  Not only did the crust get too dark, but the Swedish pearl sugar burned around their edges.  I'd have been better off sprinkling regular granulated sugar on my pie.  Ah, well -- there was plenty of rhubarb, and I had another recipe to try!

So the next day, I began making another pie using the Fine Cooking/Barker recipe.  I followed the directions for the food processor pie crust, and it was a disaster.  I know it's very in vogue these days to make pie crust in a food processor, but after trying both methods I greatly prefer doing it by hand.  The food processor just goes SO fast that I overdid it and ended up with a ball of dough stuck around the blade of the machine before I knew it.  That's bad, because you're supposed to stop pulsing the dough when it looks like coarse crumbs.  I proceeded to chill the dough as directed, rolled it out in my pie bags like before... and it fell apart into about a dozen pieces when I tried to transfer the bottom crust into my pie dish!  I gathered up the scraps, rolled them out again and tried one more time, but the same exact thing happened.  I was NOT a happy camper!  Why was I having so much trouble with the "easy" butter/shortening crust when the butter crust that should have been more challenging was such a breeze?  Well, one thing I should point out here is that the Fine Cooking recipe called for a regular 9" Pyrex pie dish, whereas the Bon Appetit recipe called for a deep dish pie plate.  Comparing the two crust recipes, the Bon Appetit butter crust had 3 1/2 cups of flour but the Fine Cooking crust only had 2 2/3 cups of flour.  I think that the Fine Cooking recipe did not make enough dough for my deep pie dish, and I had to roll it out way too thin to make it big enough.  It was a MUCH thinner crust, and I think that's why it was falling apart.  Yet both pie recipes use the exact same quantity of filling, and even with the deep pie dish, that first pie bubbled over in the oven.  No way was I going to try to cram all of that fruit into a shallow, ugly little Pyrex pan.

Another possibility: I was also following both recipes' instructions to divide my dough in HALF for the top and bottom crusts, even though the bottom crust really needs to be larger, especially with a deep pie dish, since the bottom crust needs to reach up the sides of the dish with enough left over to crimp the edges rather than just laying flat across the top.  The King Arthur Flour Baking blog recommends dividing the dough for a two-crust pie into 2/3 for the bottom crust and 1/3 for the top crust.  I'll try to remember that for next time.  

I could have started over with the Fine Cooking crust, processing it less in the food processor, dividing the dough unevenly so there would be more bottom crust to work with, or even increasing the ingredients proportionally so I'd have more dough for both crusts.  But I remembered how easily the Bon Appetit butter and vodka crust was to make, how trouble-free it was to work with, and how delicious it smelled baking, so I decided to make another  Bon Appetit butter crust to go with the Fine Cooking filling.  

Meanwhile, during the trials and tribulations of the self-destructing pie crusts, my filling was already mixed up and had been sitting on the counter.  Because Fine Cooking calls for quick cooking tapioca instead of cornstarch, the strawberries and rhubarb had been mixed up with the sugar, tapioca, orange juice, orange zest, and spices before I even started fighting with the Crust That Wasn't Meant To Be.  Tapioca needs that extra time for the fruit juices to start softening the tapioca granules before it goes in the oven.  The recipe said to let the filling sit for "at least 10 minutes, and up to 30 minutes, while preparing the bottom crust."  Well, I fought that bottom crust for at least 45 minutes before I gave up on it, and then spent another 15 minutes starting a new butter crust from scratch... and that dough needed to be chilled for another TWO HOURS.  So my filling sat for a LONG time, and a great deal of juice was released by the time I had a bottom crust ready to fill.  The first pie filling I made, the Bon Appetit recipe thickened with cornstarch, looked like dry fruit with a light coating of white dust when it went into the pie.  

Relatively Dry Cornstarch Filling from Bon Appetit Recipe
But this Fine Cooking pie filling that had been mixed up and sitting for about three hours had released so much juice that it looked like a fruit soup by the time it went into the pie!

VERY Wet Tapioca Filling From Fine Cooking Recipe
My husband suggested draining off the liquid from the soupy pie filling, but I knew that all of that liquid was in the first pie, too -- it just didn't come out of the fruit until it was baking in the oven.  So I left my filling soupy, and covered it with a lattice top crust exactly like the one I'd made for my first pie.  Like the first pie, the Fine Cooking recipe also called for an egg wash and a sprinkling of sugar, so it looked very much like the first pie when it went into the oven except for the fruit juice that was already coming up through the lattice holes before baking.  In hindsight, I think I was a bit heavy-handed with the egg wash.  I need to get a different pastry brush that will let me brush on a thinner coat next time.

Fine Cooking Filling With Bon Appetit Crust, Ready for Baking
I was determined that this pie would be pretty enough for gifting when it was done, though, so I did some more research about how to overcome the overbrowning.

Effects of Different Pastry Washes
This whole washing-the-top-crust thing was new for me.  The Bon Appetit recipe called for washing the top crust with a whole egg, and the Fine Cooking recipe called for a wash made with only the egg yolk.  However, both of those recipes are originally calling for a plain sheet of pastry draped over the pie, not a lattice top like mine.  The lattice topped strawberry rhubarb pie in Carole Walter's cookbook uses a milk wash instead of egg, and as you can see in the photo above (love the Internet!), a milk wash or even an egg white wash would not have browned as darkly as the egg yolk wash did.  Perhaps the thinner strips of pastry in a lattice top brown faster on their own than a plain crust would.  So switching to a wash of egg white or milk is another change I'm going to incorporate next time.

The other tips I gleaned from Carole Walter's recipe were to cover the pie edges with pie shields right up until only 10 minutes of baking time remained, and to cover the entire pie with tented aluminum foil (with a few slashes for steam to escape) if the pie was starting to get too brown before the filling was bubbling up -- the essential indicator that it's really and truly done baking.  I did both of those things with this pie.

So after all of this drama, here's what my second pie looked like after baking:

2nd Finished Pie, Bon Appetit Crust With Fine Cooking Filling
Not bad, right? I'm so glad I went with the deep dish pie pan, since the filling bubbled up and over the edges even with the larger capacity pie plate.  This is the pie I brought to church for my pastor's wife so I didn't get to eat any of it, but I did taste a bit of the filling that dripped out of the edge of the pan.  YUM.

Cornstarch Pie On Left, Tapioca Pie On Right
With the two pies side-by-side on my counter, I noticed other differences besides the amount of crust browning.  As it cooled, the cornstarch thickened pie filling contracted so substantially that it sank below the crust, turning the lattice holes into dark windows of gloom.  The tapioca thickened pie filling didn't do that.  Also, if you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see that the cornstarch thickened pie has a dull pink, cloudy color, whereas the tapioca thickened pie is a deep, attractive red color.    You can see that in the sliced pie as well.

Slice of Cornstarch-Thickened Pie
It doesn't look like anything out of a food magazine, but the cornstarch thickened pie held up beautifully -- no watery mess! -- and tasted delicious.  I hope I can get honest feedback about the tapioca-thickened pie that I gave away.  In any case, I have enough rhubarb chopped up in my freezer to make one more pie.  I'm going to make it just like the one I gave away, using the Bon Appetit butter crust, my lattice piecrust cutter, and the tapioca filling from the Fine Cooking recipe, but I'm going to use a milk wash instead of egg and sprinkle the next pie with granulated sugar instead of with the giant Swedish pear sugar boulders.

But I've spent an awful lot of time in the kitchen over the weekend, and will be too busy for any more baking until at least next week.  Maybe I'll I'll bake another pie for Valentine's Day!

Want to try making this pie on your own?  Here's my final recipe, a hybrid between the Bon Appetit/Morocco and the Fine Cooking/Barker recipe, incorporating all of my nifty pie tools:

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie with Lattice Butter Crust


Advance Preparation: Dough can be prepared 5 days ahead & refrigerated, or 1 month ahead if frozen.  Let dough soften slightly at room temperature before using.  Bake pie a day ahead of serving.

1 lb. + 1.5 oz all purpose flour
2 T granulated sugar
1 1/3 c. finely chopped pecans
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
1 ½ c. (3 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½” pieces
¼ c. cold vodka
2 T apple cider vinegar
Milk for glazing

1 lb. + 4 oz fresh rhubarb, cut into ½” thick slices
1 lb. strawberries, hulled & sliced into ½” chunks
1 ½ c. + 2 T granulated sugar
¼ c. + 1 T + 1 ½ tsp. quick-cooking tapioca
2 T fresh-squeezed navel orange juice
1 tsp. finely grated orange zest
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. ground allspice
¼ tsp. kosher salt
2 T cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

For crust:
1.      Whisk flour, granulated sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Toss butter in dry ingredients with your fingertips to evenly coat. Working quickly and aggressively, rub butter into dry ingredients with your fingertips to create large, shaggy pieces of dough (the idea is to smash the butter into the flour, creating some pieces that are flat and thin and some that are large and irregular).
2.      Stir vodka, vinegar, and ¼ cup ice water (or ½ cup ice water) in a small bowl. Drizzle over dough a little at a time, mixing with a fork until shaggy pieces form. You may not need to use all the liquid!  Knead in bowl with your hands a couple of times until a shaggy dorm forms (it should look quite dry). Transfer large clumps of dough to a work surface. Drizzle 1 Tbsp. ice water over remaining dough in bowl and knead again to bring it together. Add to dough on work surface.
3.      Divide dough unevenly into 2/3 for the bottom crust and 1/3 for the top crust. Working with one crust at a time, press into a single mass, incorporating dry bits, then pat down to make a ¾"-thick block. Using a bench scraper or knife, divide into 4 pieces. Stack pieces on top of one another, tucking any unincorporated dry bits in between layers, and press down to combine, flattening dough into one mass. Form dough into a ¾"-thick disk and wrap tightly in plastic. Use your fingertips and the outside edges of your palms to press in any rough spots or remaining dry bits of dough. Chill at least 2 hours or preferably overnight.
For filling:
1.      Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat oven to 425°F. In a large mixing bowl, combine the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, all the tapioca, orange juice, zest, cinnamon, clove, allspice, and salt. Toss gently to mix well, and then let sit for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes (while you roll out the bottom crust).
2.      Let dough sit at room temperature 5 minutes to soften. Working one at a time, roll out disks inside lightly floured 14” plastic pie crust bags to ⅛" thick. The bottom crust should roll out to the edges of the pie bag, but the top crust should be a little smaller.  Place each crust, still in its plastic bag, on glass refrigerator shelf to chill for 5-10 minutes.
3.      Take the bottom crust out of the refrigerator, unzip the bag, and carefully transfer to pie dish (make sure it’s a deep pie dish!). Lift up edges and allow dough to slump down into dish (if it’s too cold to be pliable, let it warm up slightly first). Gently press dough into edges of dish, if needed. Trim, leaving about a 1" overhang. Gently scrape in filling, smooth top, and dot with cold butter chunks.
4.      Remove the top crust from the fridge.  Unzip the bag, carefully peel back the top plastic, and invert the lattice piecrust cutter onto the exposed dough round.  Carefully flip the whole thing over so that the plastic bag is on top with the pie dough beneath it, the cutter directly beneath the dough, and the other half of the plastic bag beneath the cutter.  With a rolling pin, gently roll the dough down onto the cutter until the diamonds of the cutting tool are exposed on top, being careful not to roll too hard and cut through the plastic pie bag.  Carefully peel the plastic pie bag away from the dough, and use the handles on the lattice cutter insert to lift the pie crust out of the cutter tool.  Invert the perfectly round lattice top crust on top of pie filling.  Fold edge of bottom crust up and over edges of lattice top crust; press together to seal, and crimp as desired.  Chill assembled pie in freezer for 10 minutes.
5.      Transfer pie dish to a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet (for catching overflowing juices later), brush the lattice lightly with milk, and sprinkle with sugar.  To prevent the edges from burning, place pie shields (or strips of aluminum foil) around the edges of the pie.
6.      Bake pie 5 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 375°. Continue to bake until juices are thick and bubbling, 75–90 minutes longer, removing the pie shields before the last 10 minutes of baking.  If the lattice top is getting too dark before the pie juices are bubbling, cut a few vent holes in a piece of aluminum foil and tent the foil over the entire pie.
7.      Once the crust is golden brown and the pie filling is thick and bubbling, remove the pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack for at least 4 hours before serving. Yes, it smells amazing, and yes, people love warm pie. But if you don’t give it time to set up properly, the filling will be runny when you cut into it.
8.      The completely cooled pie can be covered with a sheet of waxed paper, then wrapped in aluminum foil and stored at room temperature or refrigerated.

9.      Pie can be serve plain, or individual slices can be warmed in the microwave and topped with vanilla ice cream.

Today I'm linking up with the February  Baking Crumbs linky party at Only Crumbs Remain and with Full Plate Thursday at Miz Helen's Country Cottage.

Only Crumbs Remain