Though I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘deprived,’ there are certain things I never, or rarely, experienced as a child. McDonalds. Red meat. Kraft mac n’ cheese. My school-lunch sandwiches (nitrate-free turkey) were always built upon whole wheat bread, and I looked forward to going to friends’ houses where I could gorge on Jiffy peanut butter, sugary jam and Wonderbread sandwiches unbeknownst to my health-nut mom. A weekly after-school jaunt while my parents worked full time yielded the coveted blue-boxed, fluorescent orange pasta for dinner, offering a one-night reprieve from caprese salads and balsamic vinaigrette.
Once the shock of getting to college, and the requisite day of panic regarding how I would possibly do my grocery shopping by myself and without a car wore off, I spent a gleeful year devouring all the technicolor noodles I could (when not cooking cherry and goat cheese stuffed pork cutlets or chocolate-raspberry bavarian cakes, that is).
Jay’s mom lives in Corralitos, a small town outside of Santa Cruz, where she has more outdoor space than our 1-square-foot of fire escape, and she knows how to use it. Tender greenish-pink stalks of rhubarb emerge from her garden throughout every spring and fall, and she is kind enough to gift much of it to her baking obsessed son’s lady friend (that would be me.)
Sadly, my pastry teacher, Claire, who worked as the pastry chef at Absinthe for many years, warned me that rhubarb desserts don’t sell. People (annoyingly for us creative types!) tend to play it safe when it comes to dessert, and many have either never tasted the stuff or claim to dislike it. Where restaurant-goers might be more apt to go out on a limb during the savory part of the meal, they tend to stick to familiar desserts such as chocolate, cheesecake, bread pudding, apple and peach desserts, during the sweet finale. Last spring I put a citrus pound cake on the menu where I work, served it with lightly sweetened crème fraîche and heavy cream whipped to soft peaks, and hibiscus-vanilla poached rhubarb. It was just about my favorite dessert ever, and broke my heart to come in day after day to learn that zero orders had sold the previous night.
Since my rhubarb compulsion must be relegated to home baking adventures, I’ve used it all different ways over the past several years. I’ve even read a few recipes which use it in savory applications, though I’ve yet to try that. (Update: I finally tried it, in the form of rhubarb chutney – success!) Here are a few tricks to working with rhubarb that I’ve picked up over the years:
1) Add enough sugar
I often try to get away with as little as possible, but rhubarb’s tart astringency asks for quite a bit. So don’t skimp (but don’t go overboard, either).
2) Don’t overcook
Rhubarb can break down into mushy strings faster than you can say ‘rheum rhabarbarum.’ My favorite way to cook it, alla Martha, is to bring a vanilla-infused sugar syrup to a boil, dump in the 2″ lengths of the vegetable, turn off the heat and let steep until just tender. The stalks stay distinct, firm and pretty.
3) Rhubarb plays well with others
Not just strawberries, although once you try that ambrosial combo you’ll see why it’s a classic, rhubarb also pairs well with orange, blood orange, lemon (esp. meyer), tangerine, lime, mango, apples, raspberries, boysenberries and tayberries.
4) Enhance its rosy hue
Rhubarb, especially the home-grown varieties which can be more green than red, will look prettier when infused with other red foods. Martha adds a sliced red beet to her poaching liquid; blood orange juice, red berries and hibiscus also achieve the same. Hothouse rhubarb, which comes into the markets right around now, tends to be the reddest, in my experience.
5) Choose smaller stalks
Thinner stalks tend to be more flavorful, and less watery and stringy, than their more corpulent counterparts, yielding tastier results (and we are all about tasty results, yes?).
6) Meet your Uncle Herbie
Not that Uncle Herbie, but rose geranium, mint, lemon verbena, lavender, cardamom, ginger and angelica (should you be so fortunate) all enhance this dessert veggie, as well as the more common but no less scrumptious vanilla bean.
7) Say cheese!
I love cheese more than just about anything, and the sweet-tartness of chevre, cream cheese, mascarpone, creme fraiche and ricotta all pair superbly with rhubarb.
-Combine with strawberries or apples and make an old fashioned dessert, such as pie, cobbler, crisp, buckle, brown-betty, clafoutis or pandowdy. Serve warm with vanilla or ginger ice cream
-Make an orange and rhubarb marmalade, or strawberry-rhubarb jam
-Toss with maple syrup and roast in the oven until tender, then toss with fresh berries for a compote to serve with ice cream, yogurt, ricotta cheesecake, panna cotta, or rice pudding
-Poach small pieces til firm-tender, and use them to top financiers
-Rhubarb tarte tatin with creme fraiche ice cream
-Rhubarb ice cream or sorbet served with candied ginger shortbread
-Top some poached or roasted rhubarb slices with a stovetop creme brulee, then sugar and torch the top
-Serve a compote or poached rhubarb slices with cornmeal citrus pound cake and some lightly sweetened whipped cream
-Layer rhubarb compote with sweetened whipped cream or syllabub in a glass for a rhubarb fool
And finally, here’s what I did with the first rhubarb of the season. I found the crunch of the cornmeal dough, which sturdily stood up to the wet juices of the vegetable, a pleasing contrast to the savory-sweet cheese filling and tender, sweet-tart rhubarb. A splash of blood orange juice enhanced the color and added a mysterious note of flavor. They remind me a bit of really amazing pop-tarts, another treat of which my childhood remained deprived.
These galettes are equally at home with a morning cup of tea, an afternoon pick-me-up, or a post-prandial espresso.
Rhubarb Chevre Galettes with Cornmeal Pate Brisee
Makes six 4-5″ galettes
Cornmeal Pate Brisee
1/2 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2″ chunks
1/4 cup ice water
1 egg, lightly beaten (for brushing the galettes)
1-2 tablespoons coarse sugar, for sprinkling
Combine the flours, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Scatter over the butter chunks and work in with your fingers until some pea-sized chunks remain. Sprinkle in the water a tablespoon at a time, tossing with your hands, until the dough just comes together and no floury bits remain. Gently press the dough into a ball, then cut into 6 equal pieces. Flatten into little discs, dust with a bit of flour, put them on a plate and cover with plastic wrap. Chill in the fridge until firm, 30-45 minutes.
Remove the discs and roll each disc out to about a 6″ round, 1/8″ or so thick. Stack on a plate, cover with plastic and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.
Rhubarb and Chevre Fillings
1/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
10-12 ounces rhubarb, washed and trimmed, sliced diagonally into 1/4 – 1/2″ pieces
1 tablespoon cornstarch
juice of 1/2 a small blood (or regular) orange (about 2 tablespoons)
2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) soft goat cheese, at room temperature
2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) cream cheese, at room temperature
While the dough rounds are chilling, prepare the fillings.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the 1/3 cup sugar, cornstarch and a pinch of salt. Toss in the rhubarb, then the orange juice. Let sit for 15-20 minutes so the rhubarb can begin to release its juices.
In a small bowl, mash together the cheeses, 1 tablespoon sugar and a pinch of salt to combine.
Assembling and Baking the Galettes
Position a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 400º. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Lay the galette rounds on the pan. Top each with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the chevre mixture and spread into a 3″ round. Divide the rhubarb among the rounds, leaving the juices behind (you’ll add them later.) Fold up the edges of each galette leaving a little 2″ window in the center, pressing gently so they’ll stay put. Now pour any extra juices over the rhubarb and into the galette.
Brush the dough with the beaten egg, and sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Bake the galettes for 15 minutes, remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of granulated sugar over the rhubarb, to help it stay moist and caramelize, then return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes, for a total baking time of about 1/2 an hour. The juices and cheese should be bubbling thickly, and the crust should be nicely golden-brown.
Immediately remove from the pan (they may stick where the juices have run) and serve warm, or at room temperature. The galettes are best the day they are made, but they can be stored in the fridge for a day or two; re-heat in a toaster oven to crisp up the crust.