I never would have thought to pair rhubarb with apples, but after trying Deborah Madison’s pandowdy from Local Flavors, I became a stalwart believer.
Rhubarb’s tart, fresh flavor is a lovely way to lively up stodgy winter desserts as the weather transitions into spring, and apple tames rhubarb’s tartness the same way that strawberries do. Since apples are less watery than both rhubarb and strawberries, they provide structure that strawberry-rhubarb desserts can lack.
If I lived in a cruel, harsh world in which I were forced to choose a favorite dessert, crisp would be it. I love the way the warm gooey fruit contrasts with the salty-sweet, buttery topping. A scoop of cool ice cream melting softly rounds out the flavors.
Few desserts come together as quickly and easily as a crisp, but getting the topping just right can prove a challenge. I have tried many crisp toppings over the years and have been surprised to discover my favorite in Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook, a book whose hand-written recipes and charming line drawings are ingrained in my memory since childhood.
Not just for hippies, these recipes are time-tested and solid, and this one beats out some of the greats, including Lindsey Shere, dessert queen of Chez Panisse, whose crisp I found to be overly buttery and heavy; and those wonderfully OCD folks at Cook’s Illustrated, who have you grind nuts in a food processor, bake the topping separately, then add it to the crisp and bake it again.
This one gets the ratio of crisp to fruit just right, with a topping that is crunchy and crumbly. The butter is melted, rather than worked in cold as per usual, which saves your finger muscles from having to do a lot of work, and creates perfectly nubby, delicate clumps. I like the high ratio of oats, which lend texture, earthy flavor and healthy things, the low level of sugar (I used maple sugar, but brown or unrefined sugar both work well) and just the right amount of salt. If you like nuts in your crisp, add 1/2 cup chopped pecans or sliced almonds.
The filling I pilfered from the aformentioned pandowdy, but subbed a bit of fresh ginger for the spices called for. Half a cup of maple syrup gently sweetens the fruit, but if your apples are very tart, add a few tablespoons more. If you cut your apples into smallish chunks rather than slices, the skins are not a problem; they add color and body, and blend right in to the texture of the finished dish. If you prefer to peel them, go right ahead.
Like all rustic fruit desserts, this one is hardly set in stone. Feel free to experiment with different spices, sweeteners, fillings, and even grains in the topping. Leftovers make an instant breakfast with a bit of yogurt or crème fraîche (if you’re adverse to eating ice cream for breakfast, that is. I am not.)
Apple Rhubarb Crisp with Maple and Ginger
Makes 8 servings
4 large semi-tart apples, such as Pink Ladies, Cameos, or Fujis
1 pound (4-5 large stalks) rhubarb, in 1″ slices
1/2″ knob of fresh ginger, finely grated (about 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup maple syrup (more if your apples are very tart)
1 1/4 cups rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat, spelt, or all purpose flour
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons maple sugar (or brown sugar)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional (sliced almonds would be my choice)
vanilla ice cream, for serving
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375º.
If the apple skins are red and pretty, leave them on; or peel them, it’s your call. Cut the apples off the core and into 1″ chunks. Toss in a very large bowl with the rest of the filling ingredients and scrape into a 9 x 13″ casserole, or a gratin dish of equal dimensions.
In another large bowl, combine the oats, flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt (and nuts, if using). Stir to combine, then add the melted butter and work with your fingers until it begins to clump into a gravelly texture. Sprinkle over the fruit.
Bake in the oven for about an hour, until the crisp in golden brown and the fruit is bubbling up furiously around the sides. Remove and let stand for at least 10 minutes. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature with scoops (or quenelles) of vanilla ice cream.
Store any leftover crisp in the fridge for up to four days; but reheat before serving.