Happy Memorial Day!
Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer. Despite the annual confusion about its meaning, it’s actually to honor fallen soldiers who died serving in any of the U.S. wars (in contrast to Veterans Day).
Initially known as Decoration Day, it was first celebrated after the Civil War in the 1860s, as a day when people would decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. A few places in the United States claim to have been the first to practice the tradition that eventually became Memorial Day, but it is often attributed to women in Columbus, Mississippi, who honored the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers as early as 1866. It was a tradition that started in the south and moved north, with John A. Logan, a Union general, calling for an annual and nation-wide observance of Decoration Day in 1868.
The name Memorial Day did not start being used until 1882, and it did not become a federal holiday until 1971.
Today’s recipe, pandowdy, has an even longer American history. It was an 19th century recipe that later became a suggested ration recipe during WWII, because it used less sugar and fats than other pies. The name pandowdy comes from the early recipes, which call for a pie crust to be layered over fruit in a deep baking dish. During baking, the dish would be removed from the oven, the crust would be “dowdied” or cut up into the fruit, and then returned to the oven. In its early American life, this dish was almost exclusively made from apples. It is said to have been a favorite of President John Adams, made by his wife Abigail, who insisted that it be served on the 4th of July.
Pandowdy is the easiest and humblest of dessert recipes. Throw together some fast-ripening spring fruit, a little sugar, lemon juice and flour. It’s a one-crust pie turned on its head, meaning the only crust goes on top, instead of the bottom. (Mary Berry would perhaps approve of this dish.)
It is the type of recipe that you’d find in church cookbooks across the country. The earliest recipes are from at least the 19th century (it was mentioned in the New England Farmer newspaper of Boston as early as 1838), but the dish enjoyed a resurgence, like so many early American/colonial recipes, during the World Wars, as it was a quick, easy, and relatively cheap dessert to throw together.
Though Americans did not suffer the food shortages that other countries involved with the World Wars did, rationing did exist, and Americans were encouraged to stretch ingredients anyway they could. WWII ration cookbooks were created to provide helpful ways to provide families with nutritious recipes as well as money-saving tips. Because of the ease of preparation of desserts like pandowdy (when home cooks, almost exclusively women, were not only taking care of their families, but also working outside of the home), as well as the use of fewer expensive or hard-to-find ingredients, pandowdy became a wartime favorite.
You can make this recipe with any fruit. Rather than apples, I used blueberries and rhubarb (bluebarb, you know). I wanted to make the most of the short rhubarb season, and it’s a tasty and balanced combination–and it’s almost red, white, and blue.
Blueberry Rhubarb Pandowdy
Makes one 10-inch pie.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick, plus 1 tbsp, of unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/4-1/3 cup water, very cold
1 lb rhubarb, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 tbsp sugar
2 1/2 pints (about 5 cups) blueberries
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to mix. Add in the frozen butter. Pulse until the pieces of butter are the size of small peas. Add the apple cider vinegar and 1/4 cup water. Pulse until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the processor. You may use a bit more water if needed.
Pour the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap. Wrap the plastic around the dough and shape into a disc. Refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.
Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness.
Use a small cookie cutter, or knife, to cut out tiny 1-2-inch pieces of dough. Place on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet and put in freezer while you prepare the fruit. (To give you an idea, I used almost 50 little cutouts on my pandowdy.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease the sides and bottom of a cast iron skillet, deep dish pie pan, or any other oven-safe pan. Lay the rhubarb flat on the bottom and sprinkle evenly with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
In a large bowl, combine the blueberries, lemon juice, flour, sugar, and salt.
Pour the blueberries over the arranged rhubarb. Top with the pie dough cutouts, overlapping them to cover most of the fruit.
Bake for about 45 minutes, until the blueberry mixture is bubbling up around the pie crust pieces, and the crust is light to medium brown in color.
Super-easy. No pie edge crimping. The perfect combination of sweet blueberries and tart rhubarb. (And let’s get these final rhubarb recipes in under the wire!) Also, you definitely wouldn’t need cookie cutters for this. You could easily cut the crust into little squares, or just make a round crust to lay on top, but be sure to cut vents in the top before baking. In the early days, this dish would have likely been eaten for breakfast, but I think it’s a perfect Memorial Day dessert.
I hope you enjoy your Memorial Day parades and remembrances, picnics, BBQs, and these first unofficial days of summer!