The Rhubarb Face, and how to get it

The Rhubarb Face, and how to get it

I am in awe of the life-force in growing things. It's so strong that sometimes even things which are officially dead, like the limbs chopped from a tree two months ago and used for our garden plot fence, are still shooting out new leaves, emanating new life, greenness, growing, for no other reason than that they can.

And a garden, a vegetable garden, is an explosion of life force, albeit a silent and imperceptibly slow explosion.

That's the only way I can understand that rhubarb in our garden patch.  It was in desperate need of chopping back, harvesting, something.  It was The Blob, threatening to overtake everything.  I have been perplexed by this rhubarb.  Flummoxed.  Very unsure of how to proceed with it.

When I am in this state there are only two courses of action: research, and chit chat.  And having undertaken both I uncovered a little truism.

There are two types of people in the world: those who are flummoxed by rhubarb, and those who are passionately, fervently devoted to it, who at the mere mention of the word, smile a small poignant smile and look somewhere just over a horizon the rest of us can't see.

Passionate devotees: the ladies who submitted their creations to the Kankakee Rhubarb Festival Cook-Off.  Norwegians.  Mennonites. People with grandmas and aunties who made the best pies ever.

Flummoxed: me.  Koreans.  Greeks.  People whose grandmas and aunties didn't bake at all.

Cookbooks exist to help bridge the gap from the one side to the other with regard to any food.  And they did not let me down in this case.

Let us begin with the 1922 version of the Good Housekeeping Institute's cookbook.  Discovered by astute librarian friend and fellow CN blogger Holly in a display case in her university science library (yes), The Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries features fabulous photographs of lab-coated women hard at work in the Department of Cookery or the Department of Household Engineering.

It contains several rhubarb recipes, including a rhubarb tapioca (too 1920s), a rhubarb marmalade (yikes! this involved sterilization and paraffin! forget it!), and a couple of recipes which weren't much beyond stewing (yawn).  I opted for the rhubarb punch.  An odd notion, and possibly a good way to get at that distinctive rhubarb flavor without all the butter and brown sugar getting in the way.  It called for cloves, cinnamon stick, and whole ginger root, lending it a slightly modern, exotic flair.  First thing was to chop up several cups of rhubarb--

wait, we haven't even gotten to the harvesting part yet.

Harvesting: I think I did it wrong, according to a friend, the daughter of a midwestern Mennonite woman who knows from rhubarb.  "Just twist and pull the stalk at the base," she said.  Twist and pull?  I went in there with a large kitchen knife and just clear-cut.  I learned from my friend about the true way of harvesting after I wreaked devastation on our plant.   I hope it survives.  At any rate we got many, many stalks from the plant.  I left a few more pies' worth behind.

So.  Chop up several cups of rhubarb and pour boiling water over to cover, letting it sit "until the water is cold." (Which will happen in this weather exactly never.)  When it is room-temperature, then, you mix it with a simple syrup that has been cooked with the spices.  And what you end up with is so sweet, so cloyingly rhubarby, it is undrinkable.  Did people like drinks this sweet in the 1920s?  Is our sugar more sugary?  Was it the cinnamon's fault?  Did it just need vodka?  I don't know, but this beverage gave me the shivers.  The rhubarb taste was very strong.  And I decided as I tried iteration after iteration (it needs needs more needs lemonade...why don't I just drink lemonade) that rhubarb requires other flavor elements in there to tame it, subdue it, bend it to the will of our palates, or mine anyway.

Butter and brown sugar.  There's a reason we pair rhubarb with these things so typically.

I pined for a buttery upside-down cake with rhubarb and I found one adapted from Martha Stewart.  It turned out dense and delicious, not too sweet and perfect on a hot summer day with vanilla ice cream.  Made in a 10-inch cake pan, it was big enough to feed us plus a houseful of guests.

Lots of butter and brown sugar, too, in the rhubarb crisp that my family and our neighbors gobbled up.  The recipe was the third place winner in the Kankakee County Museum's Rhubarb Festival baking contest.  Baker Annette LaMore used raspberries in hers, but I had strawberries so that's what I used.  The traditional crisp topping of flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter was the perfect complement to that rhubarby flavor.  My hat is off to Annette.

My aforementioned friend, Marianne, tells me that a 1950s cookbook really changed her rhubarb cobblers and crisps.  She uses a ratio of 4 cups rhubarb to one cup sugar.  Prior to mixing them, though, she boils the sugar and one cup water (less would probably work, too) with a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch.  Then on top of it she places sweet biscuit dough.  She assures me that the cornstarch and the boiling treatment really knocks the whole thing out of the park, and other methods simply can't compete.

I do think we need to know of a rhubarb preparation that isn't completely dependent on butter.  What if you're lactose intolerant, or what about vegans?  Shouldn't they be able to sigh over rhubarb too?  Our co-gardener neighbor seems to have hit the jackpot on this point.  Kat hosted a baby shower for a vegan friend.  And this is what she served:

Isn't that gorgeous? Our rhubarb is a green rhubarb so what you get here is a green tart.  I'm pretty sure this future baby is going to come out of the womb feeling sentimental about rhubarb.

My Norwegian friend Signe tells me that her family cannot maintain sufficient rhubarb plants for their needs.  Six is not enough for them.  They make rhubarb sauce with it and freeze it, especially for use later as the base of Norwegian Christmas fruit soup.

My friend Paula remembered her grandmother's rhubarb pie, noting that it was just about her grandfather's favorite (second only to gooseberry, the only plant sourer than rhubarb).  "There is nothing like a pie that bites back," she said, adding that "this also goes a long way toward explaining why he married my grandmother."

Rhubarb is both snappy and savory and yet seems to love a little flour, sugar, and cinnamon.  It tastes like long ago, yet brings you right back to the present with its slap-in-the-face tartness.  Perhaps it is that paradoxical, pushme-pullyou kind of flavor that makes it so memorable, so evocative.  It ushers forth a rush of memories, recollections, sighs, and sad smiles into the middle distance.

Our recently widowed neighbor Ann accepted my offer of an armful of rhubarb with that very expression; I've come to expect it when I talk to people.  I call it the Rhubarb Face.  "Oh," she smiled, "I'd love some.  I used to bake a pie, it was Irv's favorite.  I baked one for him for his birthday every year.  He never ate rhubarb till he met me."  Later when I asked her if she had used the rhubarb, she said she'd made a compote with it, including peaches, apples, and berries.  This too evoked the past, as she said her husband had eaten a stewed fruit compote nearly every day.  She always put into it whatever she had, in whatever condition it was in.  She used to laughingly refer to the mixture as "the compost"; she hadn't made any since her husband had died.

Herewith is Ann's recipe for rhubarb pie, plus some of the others mentioned above.  If you've never cooked with rhubarb, you should try it.  It is unfussy, simple to work with, and difficult to ruin.  It will lend your baked goods an inexplicable flavor with a wonderful kick. And perhaps, long years into the future, your children's children will think of you and get the Rhubarb Face, looking over a private horizon with a small smile, and declare that you made the best rhubarb thing there ever was.

Ann's Rhubarb Pie
Ann tells me she isn't really a baker.  I say, if her pie was an annual birthday request, then she is.  She relied on Fannie Farmer to create the pie that was her husband's favorite.

3 c. cubed peeled rhubarb
1 c. sugar
2 T. flour
1 egg

Mix sugar, flour, and egg, and whisk well.  Add to rhubarb, fold thoroughly.  In a 9" pie pan, place the bottom crust of your favorite pastry recipe.  Place on a top crust, crimp.  Bake at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes.

Note: As you all may remember, my favorite, and an altogether reliable pie crust, is the Crisco pie crust recipe found on the can of Crisco with a piece of pie on the label.  You'll have to go find it yourself.  My can of Crisco has the fried chicken on the label.


Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
This recipe came from the vast storehouse of all recipes that is the web.  The now-defunct website Blue Ridge Baker ran an adaptation of a Martha Stewart recipe, and I further altered it.

1 lb. rhubarb stalks, ends trimmed and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1 3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 1/2 t. salt
zest from one medium orange
1 T. orange juice
2 eggs
1 c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 10-inch cake pan, dot bottom of pan with 1/2 stick of the butter, and set aside.

Toss rhubarb with 3/4 c. of the sugar and set aside.  In another bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.  In a stand mixer, beat remaining stick of butter and cup of sugar until light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well.  Add orange zest and juice and beat in.  Add flour mixture alternating with the buttermilk, mixing until just combined.

Toss rhubarb one more time, and pour into bottom of pan, spreading it out evenly.  Pour batter over rhubarb and smooth the top.  Bake for about an hour, but check after 45 minutes.  Cool in pan for ten minutes, run a knife around the edge, and deftly invert onto a plate big enough to catch the drips.  Eat it while it's still warm with vanilla ice cream, and you will be transported to a better place.


Raspberry-Rhubarb Crisp
This third-place winner in the 2012 Kankakee County Museum's Rhubarb Festival is from Annette LaMore. 

3 c. fresh rhubarb
1 c. fresh raspberries (so I found out strawberries work great too)
1/2 c. sugar
1 T water
1/2 c. flour
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/8 t. cinnamon
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. chopped pecans (optional)

Combine rhubarb, raspberries, sugar and water in a 2 quart casserole. Combine flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and cut in butter until crumbly.  Add pecans if using, and sprinkle evenly over fruit.  Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until bubbly.


Vegan Rhubarb-Strawberry Tart
This gorgeous jewel of a tart wants to be refrigerated as much as possible in this weather.  The recipe's a combination of a couple of others, the crust from The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas, and the filling from  Vegetarian Times magazine, June 2011.  Both have been altered for a vegan diet, and to the tart filling I took the liberty of adding corn starch to keep it from being too sloopy.

1 1/2 sticks Earth Balance vegan buttery sticks
3 T confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 c flour

2 lb. fresh rhubarb cut into 1/4" slices
2 T orange juice
1 T orange zest
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 T corn starch
2 lb. beautiful strawberries, stems and leaves removed

for the crust:
Cream together buttery sticks and confectioners' sugar in a mixer.  Add flour and blend until coarse and grainy.  Place the dough in a plastic bag and fridge for 30 minutes.  Press the dough into the bottom of a 10-inch tart pan.  Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for fifteen to twenty minutes, until lightly browned, and remove and cool.

for the filling:
Combine rhubarb, sugar, orange zest, and orange juice in a suacepan, and heat over medium heat till simmering.  Reduce heat and cook for 40 minutes until mixture is thick, stirring often.  If by now it is still not thick, mix 1 T cornstarch with 1 T cool water, then pour this mixture into your saucepan while stirring constantly over low heat. This should do the trick. Cool, then spread into bottom of tart.  Arrange strawberries stem side down over the rhubarb, starting at outer edges and working your way in.  Melt apricot jam in small saucepan over medium heat.  Brush over strawberries and around edges of tart with a pastry brush.


Rhubarb Punch
Try this 1922 beverage if you're feeling adventuresome and have a strange desire to tinker with an old punch recipe.

1 quart rhubarb cut in 1/2 inch pieces
boiling water
1 cupful sugar
1 cupful water
6 cloves
1 inch stick cinnamon
1 piece ginger root
rose petals

Cover the rhubarb with boiling water and let stand until cold.  Boil together for 5 minutes the sugar, water, and spices.  Strain, add the water from the rhubarb, and chill.  Serve with ice and a few floating rose petals.


Filed under: recipes


Leave a comment
  • Loved your post, Julie! I was curious about the rhubarb punch, myself, and wondered how the heck can something as bitter as rhubarb could make for a good punch? Thanks for experimenting for me ;) I think I'll stick with lemonade myself, too...

  • fb_avatar

    Ron's favorite although I have never tried to make anything with rhubarb. We should try to grow some and try your recipes someday....

  • fb_avatar

    Is this my favorite of your columns? By jove, I think it just might be ! Especially when you opine that rhubarb is somehow redolent of the glorious past--- so true. I sometimes think I will burst out crying when I eat good rhubarb cookery....there's something old-timey, long-time-goney, fine de siecle about it and one can only weep.
    Nigella Lawson has an excellent recipe in her cookery book 'How to Eat,' that is a rhubarb jelly (gelatin). It involves transparent sheets of gelatin and a whole bottle of moscato wine....and RHUBARB. Can anything be better, I ask ye ??? Look her up ! XOXOXO
    I love Julie!! Don't you?

  • Thanks, readers, for stopping by. Holly, as much as I love rhubarb, in a liquid form I found it intolerable. And Julianne, don't wait to grow your own bush before you cook with it--it's still in our produce market, buy a few stalks and make Ann's pie and just watch your husband's face when he even smells it baking. Anyway if you grow a bush, it will takeover your entire backyard. Mine, I report with incredulity, looks as though it was never cut back and has creepily replaced itself in a matter of a couple of weeks. And Elaine, maybe I'll try that strange concoction--if it's Nigella it's got to be good, I know that much. I can add you to rhubarb's passionate devotees list. Even thinking about it now is making me weepy, I know exactly what you mean.

Leave a comment