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Sticking up for rhubarb (it’s time)

Times Staff Writer

Rhubarb starts out so beautiful, its bright color a beacon among the greens of spring. But give it to a cook, and it can wind up mushy and ragged, almost stringy. In old-time lunch counters, wisecracking waitresses nicknamed it “boiled socks.”

In fact, it’s a wisecracking sort of ingredient itself, with a tang like a tart berry, only with a bit of brassy funk. It really needs sweetening -- it’s nearly inedible without some sugar -- and its rowdy flavor benefits from a bit of spice, and brown sugar often goes better with it than white.

There’s a certain challenge to making it the star of a dish. The easy way is to combine it with fruit, one that’s too sweet for its own good. (I’m talking about you, strawberry. In pie, you need rhubarb to save you from your own excessive charm.)

Pairing it with fruit also cuts down on the need for a lot of sugar. Raspberries or pineapple go quite nicely with it, too, and orange and lemon can be good accent flavors.

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Our three desserts soundly rise to the rhubarb challenge. Those who poke fun at rhubarb -- or utterly dismiss it -- might be amazed to know it is at the center of each recipe, and surprisingly so.

For our filled cookies, rhubarb partners with strawberries in a jam that will fool the most vegetable-hating kid. As rhubarb cooks, it loses color, but the strawberries keep things bright. Spreading the jam between two cookies (one with a hole cut from the middle) creates a sort of stained-glass look. The cookies themselves have a touch of cardamom, a spice so right with ground almonds.

Rhubarb goes a different route with our marzipan tarts, where it joins raspberries. The strong almond flavor of the marzipan adds an accent to the sweet-tartness of the fruit, and the sugar in the filling can be increased or decreased according to the fruit’s sweetness.

In our coffeecake, rhubarb goes it alone, but you may not be able to tell. Though the rhubarb adds a bit of tartness, the tender sour cream cake has a sweet crumb topping with a touch of nutmeg. Not too tart, not too sweet -- just right.

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In grocery stores, you’ll find two varieties of rhubarb, depending on the time of year: hothouse grown, with light pink stalks and yellow leaves; and field grown, with dark red stalks and green leaves. Field grown will show up soon. Hothouse rhubarb is slightly milder in flavor and a bit less stringy.

In either case, look for crisp, brightly colored stalks (only the stalks can be eaten; the leaves are toxic). Wrapped in plastic, they can be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days.

One of the simplest recipes for rhubarb is a stew of rhubarb, sugar and water cooked just until the rhubarb is tender and forms a sauce. Try it with buttered toast or ice cream as a surprise garnish. You can be sure there’ll be no wisecracks at all.

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Breakfast coffeecake

Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Servings: 12

Note: From Donna Deane

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Crumble topping

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

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1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) cold butter, cut up

1. Combine the sugar, flour, nutmeg and salt in a bowl. Stir in the vanilla, then work in the butter with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Set aside.

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Cake

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

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1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

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2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream

2 cups diced rhubarb

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1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch tube pan.

2. Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

3. Beat together the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Beat in the vanilla.

4. Beat in half the flour mixture until creamy, then beat in the sour cream until blended. Beat in the remaining flour mixture until combined. Stir in the rhubarb.

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5. Spoon the batter into the tube pan. Top with the crumble mixture. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool the cake in the pan slightly, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Each serving: 326 calories; 453 mg. sodium; 75 mg. cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.

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Marzipan tarts

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Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Donna Deane

Crust

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1 cup flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup cold butter, cut up

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2-3 tablespoons water

1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or a fork until the crust is crumbly. Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture. Stir with a fork until the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Separate the dough into 4 parts. Roll out one part of the dough on a lightly floured surface into a round to fit into 4-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Topping

1/2 cup flour

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1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup cold butter, cut up

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1/4 cup marzipan, cut up

1. Combine the flour, sugar, vanilla and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and marzipan, and work into the dough with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Set aside.

Filling

3/4 cup sugar

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1/4 cup flour

2 cups diced rhubarb

1 cup raspberries

1 teaspoon lemon juice

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1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Combine the sugar, flour, rhubarb, raspberries and lemon juice in a bowl. Gently stir until combined. Divide the filling among the tart shells.

3. Sprinkle the crumb topping over the top of each. Place the tarts on a baking sheet and bake about 30 minutes until browned and bubbly. Remove from oven and let cool to warm before serving.

Each tart: 785 calories; 300 mg. sodium; 72 mg. cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 121 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 5 grams fiber.

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Strawberry-rhubarb stained-glass cookies

Total time: 3 hours

Servings: About 20 cookies

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Note: From Mary Ellen Rae in the Times Test Kitchen. Make the jam ahead so it can chill. The cookies can be stored airtight for several days in the refrigerator.

Jam

1 cup diced rhubarb

1 cup diced strawberries

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1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 teaspoons water

1. Combine the rhubarb, strawberries and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat until the fruit softens and breaks down, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Stir the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl. Add to the fruit and continue cooking on low heat, stirring often, until the fruit thickens, about 5 more minutes. Cool completely and store covered in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will stay fresh up to a week.

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Cookies

2/3 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 egg

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/3 cups flour, plus more for rolling

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom

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1/2 cup blanched almonds, finely ground

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon water

1 tablespoon sparkling sugar

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1. Beat the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the egg and vanilla; beat until smooth.

2. Sift the flour and salt together then stir in the cardamom. Add the flour to the butter mixture on low speed just until combined. Stir in the almonds.

3. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and flatten into rectangles. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

4. Heat the oven to 375 degrees; grease 2 baking sheets. Remove 1 rectangle of dough at a time.

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5. Roll out the dough on a very lightly floured work surface to 1/8-inch thick. Using a 2 1/2-inch fluted cookie cutter, cut out as many cookies as you can. Then, using a 1-inch fluted cookie cutter, cut a hole in the center of half of the fluted cookies (these will become the tops of the sandwich cookies). Carefully place all cookies on the baking sheets.

6. Make the egg wash by stirring the beaten egg with water. Brush just the top cookies (with the hole) with the egg wash. Sprinkle the sparkling sugar over the egg-washed cookies. Bake until a pale golden brown, 10 to 11 minutes. Cool on a rack.

7. Continue with the remaining dough until all the cookies are baked and you have an equal number of tops and bottoms.

8. Place 1 teaspoon of jam in the center of each of the bottom cookies, spreading to within 1/2-inch of the edge. Place a top cookie over each and press gently.

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Each cookie: 192 calories; 37 mg. sodium; 38 mg. cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.


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