5.27.2013

Pucker Up.


I've been thinking about the handful of fruits and vegetables that we use in cooking but would never just pop into our mouths, fresh. I mean to say, foods that require a significant transformation for them to be edible, like olives, rhubarb and cranberries. Olives have to be fermented or cured, rhubarb has toxic leaves and is almost always macerated then baked. And cranberries, have you ever tried to just eat a cranberry? Not pleasant. And acorns. It has never even occurred to me to eat an acorn. Yet, it is a nut. Squirrels eat acorns. And throughout history acorns have been used, ground up to make grain flours and even used as a coffee substitute for soldiers in both the Civil War and World War II.

It fascinates me to no end to think of the trajectory of how we, the people, figured out how to make these things (and all things) edible. 'Well, Hyram there died when he ate that acorn. So let's try and soak it in another poisonous substance, LYE, and give it another go. Yes? Rodney's okay? Alright, good to hear because this would make a lovely flour with which to create a noodle.'

Rhubarb. It comes into season in the Spring and everyone gets all aflutter about it. I'd say about ninety percent of the time you'll find rhubarb paired with strawberries and baked into a pie or a crumble. It's bright, tart and guaranteed to make you pucker up. My favorite bit of information I stumbled across in my rhubarb research: In British theatre and early radio drama, the words "rhubarb rhubarb" were repeated for the effect of unintelligible conversation in the background. This usage lent its title to the 1969 film Rhubarb and its 1980 remake Rhubarb Rhubarb. I guess it's just about time for someone to make Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb.

I haven't played with much rhubarb in my day. I could probably count on one hand, the number of times I've purchased any. And so, last time I found myself staring at produce at the market looking for inspiration, I grabbed a handful of those awkward, glossy, orangey, reddish-pinkish stalks and got to thinking. Even though I entertained some compelling arguments to go the savory route, which is generally more apropos for me, I knew pretty quickly that I was going to go sweet.
But a muted, subtle sweet.

Time to bake.

Though I am no cake connoisseur, I have always really loved coffee cakes and pound cakes. They are less cake-like and more akin to very sweet breads (not sweetbreads, mind you – wildly different things). Interestingly, both are also Southern. To this day, I would eat the Tasty Cake version of a coffee cake or the Sarah Lee version of a pound cake in a hot minute. The most beguiling part of coffee cake is the crumb on top. Those brown sugary, buttery grape-sized chunks on top of the cake that are toothachingly, cloyingly sweet – that almost requires a swallow of coffee to allay the sweetness – that's my jam.

And what better an element to cut that sweetness than the tartness of rhubarb?

I was right. When my cake cooled, we all dug in. The rhubarb, which had been macerated prior to baking, was mellow and gently sweet, but maintained it's pert zing, adding an ideal offset to the sugar bomb crumby coffee cake. Well, that and a cup of hot coffee.

And no one even had to die in the process. But Hyram, we certainly do thank you.



Rhubarb Crumb Coffee Cake
(recipe adapted from NYT Dining, June 2007)

Serves 8


For the rhubarb filling:


1/2 pound rhubarb, trimmed

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon fresh, grated ginger

For the crumbs:


1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon fresh, grated ginger

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, melted

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:


1/3 cup plain greek yogurt

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8-inch baking pan. For filling, slice rhubarb 1/2 inch thick and toss with sugar, cornstarch and ginger. Set aside.

To make crumbs, in a large bowl, whisk sugars, spices and salt into melted butter until smooth. Then, add flour with a spatula or wooden spoon. It will look and feel like a solid dough. Leave it pressed together in the bottom of the bowl and set aside.

To prepare cake, in a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about 1/2 cup batter and set aside.

Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon rhubarb over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over rhubarb; it does not have to be even.

Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter (it might be moist from rhubarb), 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.




Two years ago: Yerp: Part 1 (of many).

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