Like any fruit or vegetable limited to a short season, rhubarb pie has a dedicated following. Many of the young barista crew at the bakery are new to the rhubarb experience. Confiding that they have never before tasted rhubarb, they often ask to sample a piece of the raw stalks. Their reactions are reminiscent of middle schoolers experiencing Pop Rocks for the first time.
The bakery’s first case of rhubarb arrived this week, direct from a Lancaster County farm fresh cooperative. Rest assured, any threat of wayward toxic leaves wreaking havoc amongst the community has been eliminated under a watchful eye and a sharp paring knife.
No longer limited to tucking the tart pie plant between two circles of pate brisee, the short season ingredient is popping up in both sweet and savory recipes at an alarming rate. One might say rhubarb is traveling across the internet with the speed of a unicorn making its way towards a buttercream cake. Highly coveted by those driving the hip and cool recipe bus, rhubarb is currently making a splash in icy cocktails and being tossed on its head in upside down cakes. It has been seen snuggling against fish tacos and swiss chard, duck breasts and asparagus. Call me old-fashioned, but I see nothing wrong in combining a few handfuls of rhubarb with a little sugar and a few strawberries, cooking it down into a quick jam.
My mother introduced me to the surprising tartness of rhubarb when I was quite young. She cooked it just long enough to soften the thick slices, adding a generous amount of freckled strawberries and just enough sweetening from the yellow box of Domino sugar. Once it cooled, we ate it with spoons, straight-up, out of small dimpled bowls. I don’t remember anyone else in the house clamoring for a taste. My love of pairing sweet with tart most definitely came from my mother. Good gene pool.
A little bit of unforeseen kismet brings Sibling-Formerly-of-Seattle-Currently-of-Toronto into town again this weekend. I couldn’t be happier to have her company, even if she has threatened to reorganize my work wardrobe. A little splash of rhubarb circa 2012 across a once white t-shirt seems perfectly agreeable to me. Knowing that my sister does not share my t-shirt sentimentality, I’ll bury it in the bottom of the dresser and hope she doesn’t find it.
With company coming, I have unearthed one of Jessie’s favorite baking pans, the mighty Magnalite, embossed with the clarification that it is a Roast and Bake Pan. Sporting two ridged handles and weightier than my pedestrian 9” by 13” brownie pan, the Magnalite had but one use when Jessie ran the kitchen. It was used to hold tightly coiled spirals of butter-rich sweet dough, busting with raisins and walnuts. Jessie’s Sugar Buns were reserved exclusively for Sunday mornings, filling the house with the fragrance of yeast-risen dough, perfumed with cinnamon and brown sugar. There was no cloying confectioners’ sugar glaze on top, just plump raisins peeking out from a morning pastry that was just sweet enough.
Jessie’s recipe for Sugar Buns came from the soft-cover Treasury of Yeast Baking compiled by the folks at Fleishchmann. Her directive for the filling is penned in classic Jessie-speak. “Cinnamon- use your own judgement. Raisins- the green measuring cup.” Thankfully, I speak that language.
This week’s recipe combines both Jessie’s Sugar Buns and Rommy’s penchant for rhubarb and strawberries. Unless your baking plans are more homicide-driven than usual, make sure to remove those poisonous rhubarb leaves. Which leads me to wonder, if we can put a unicorn on a cake, why can’t we figure out a way to grow rhubarb year round?