June 05, 2014

The rhubarb train

I'm still on the rhubarb train
And, although we are just now gliding into June, it remains possible, I tell you, to find rhubarb at your grocery store or local farmer’s market. Soon it will be gone, though, I'm sad to say. We are, as I type these very words, running out of time. 

In light of all of this, I bring you today a collection of rhubarb recipes in tandem with one very delicious, seasonal, cake-pie-crumble-hybrid-dessert thing. Yes, that is what we have here, officially. 

The recipe comes from the pages of Nigel Slater’s brilliant tome Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. As suggested by the title, Ripe is a book about a cook and his homegrown fruit. It is a delectable and delightful collection of recipes, nestled among tender photos of Nigel’s garden and the wonderful and varied things that he is able to make from it. His section on rhubarb is formidable. It includes a rundown of the many heirloom varieties (with names such as Muriel, Cutbush’s Seedling, and The Streeter), a brief history, and a starry-eyed ode that speaks volumes to his love of the stalky, poison-leafed plant. 
“How could anyone not love something known as the pie plant—or indeed, anything whose stems offer such vibrant color at a time of the year when most of our fruit is sleeping?” Nigel begins. “Yet rhubarb has never found the broad audience enjoyed by the raspberry or the apple. Instead, it has a loyal, almost cultish following, happy to indulge in its piercing crimson sharpness.”
I don’t think a more beautiful description of rhubarb has ever appeared in print than “piercing crimson sharpness.” 

Rhubarb inspires those who love it to inhabit a certain madness. We might surreptitiously pull a stalk from a neighbor’s yard. We might howl at the heavens shaking a mighty fistful. We might write book chapters about the plant that read like proper odes to a long-lost friend. Such is the cultish following that rhubarb enjoys. 

To accompany the recipe for this cake—which, by the way, is so delicious; crunchy, hearty, sweet, and tart all at once—I give you a list of of thirteen more things to do with rhubarb. I am hoping to make this a regular practice on the site, once per month or so, to compile a list of recipes exploring a particular fruit, vegetable, or food category. I will learn some things in the process, I hope, about vinegars, or homemade ricotta, or cherries, or peas, or yeasted doughs. And, in its own way, this blog may become something of a resource for us cooks, gardeners, and rhubarb-chasers alike. 

So, go forth with your fistfuls of crimson sharpness! Let's enjoy it while it lasts. 
Rhubarb-Raspberry Cornmeal Cake
Adapted from Ripe

Notes: The most significant modification I made to this recipe was to add raspberries. You could easily omit them, and I'm sure the cake would be delicious. Alternately, I would guess that strawberries could also be tossed in at the last second. For a summer version of this cake, I would try it with nectarines or plums. The original recipe calls for golden baker's sugar. I substituted a combination of light brown sugar and granulated in the crust, and light brown only for the fruit.

1 pound rhubarb
1/4 cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons water
3 ounces (3/4 cups) raspberries

3/4 cups coarse polenta or cornmeal
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Generous pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
Zest of one organic orange, finely grated
10 tablespoons butter, chilled
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon demerara or Turbinado sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place a baking sheet inside the oven. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan; line with parchment once across, and butter the parchment.

Trim the ends of the rhubarb, and cut each stalk into roughly 2-inch pieces. Place in a large baking dish, adding the sugar and water on top. Roast for 30 minutes, or until the rhubarb is soft, but still has some shape. Drain the rhubarb, reserving the juice. (You can pause at this point; the roasted rhubarb will keep for a day or so in the fridge. The cake can then be assembled quickly the day you plan to serve it.)

In a large bowl, combine the polenta, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sugars with a wooden spoon. Cut the butter into smallish cubes and add it to the flour mixture. Add the orange zest. Use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour mixture, until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. There should still be some pea-sized pieces of butter.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and the milk. Pour it into the flour mixture, and use your hands to blend the crust together. Stop as soon as the mixture comes together being careful not to overmix. The dough should be somewhat sticky. If it is not, add 1–2 tablespoons more milk.

Scoop out two-thirds of the dough, and press it into the prepared pan with your fingers. It should go up the sides about half an inch higher than the dough that forms the base. Toss the rhubarb across the surface of the dough, and then scatter the raspberries over. Crumble the remaining dough over the fruit, and sprinkle with the demarara sugar to finish.

Bake for 1 hour, on the preheated baking sheet, or until the crust is a rich golden brown. Serve with the reserved juice from the rhubarb drizzled on top.