Don’t you love rhubarb?
Growing up on the prairies, rhubarb signaled that winter was over: dessert bowls of mom’s dull-coloured canned rhubarb with its bracing, teeth-cleaning acidity came to an end, replaced by her fresh rhubarb pies and mini cakes: sugared rhubarb and walnuts topped with a sweet-cream biscuit dough and baked in muffin tins. Yum! It doesn’t surprise me that rhubarb first came to Europe, it was considered a spring tonic.
Rheum rhaponticum originated in China, where its roots were ground up and used as an all-purpose digestive medicine. In the company of pearls and silk, rhubarb travelled the Silk Road to Russia, where the czars controlled it—you had to have a special permit to get some. It wasn’t eaten until the eighteenth century with the advent of sugar plantations. Why didn’t anyone think to add honey to it before that?
I keep a file folder on my computer called “Monthly Food” so I don’t forget to make my favourite recipes. Under “May,” you’ll find a lot of recipes beneath the heading Rhubarb, as you can see:
Charlotte—Gourmet, March 2001
With tapioca—Food & Wine, April 2002
With yogurt and biscotti—Mario Batali
Upside-down cake with anise—Gourmet, April 1999
Squares—file from Chow on the Internet
Lemon, Poppy and Chevre Cheesecakes with Rhubarb, F&W May 2012
Alice Water’s Galette
Saveur Compote: computer file
Muesli (book file)
Chutney with duck (file)
Burrowing Owl style: coconut sables, vanilla cream, rhubarb sorbet, basil gel
So far this month, I’ve made Rhubarb Galette (from Alice Waters’ cookbook Chez Panisse Fruit), which Marsha and George and Magellan and I ate in its entirety one night, and Rhubarb/Almond Squares from Chow. I didn’t take photos of either dessert. Which is too bad, because both showcase small, candy-red pieces of rhubarb, whereas their crimson colour is hidden away inside today’s recipe, Rhubarb Pecan Muffins.
The recipe, torn from the Vancouver Sun sometime during the last 20 years, won Vicki Gabereau’s best-muffin contest on CBC. Because of the way I cut out the recipe from the newspaper, there’s little I can tell you about the winning author except that her last name is Doucet.
I’ve made only two small changes to Ms Doucet’s recipe. The addition of ground fennel seeds, a flavour enhancement I picked up from both Gourmet magazine and The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. And a dash of vanilla.
Up the rhubarb flavour by spreading these muffins with rhubarb jam. And if you want the taste of spring early next year, freeze some rhubarb and make these muffins before the snow thaws and the lilacs bloom.
- 2 cups flour
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp ground fennel seeds
- 1 tsp salt
- ¾ cup chopped pecans
- 1 large egg
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 2 tsp grated orange peel
- ¾ cup orange juice
- ½ tsp vanilla
- 1¼ cups fine-chopped fresh rhubarb
- Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, fennel and chopped pecans in a large bowl.
- In a smaller bowl, beat the egg. Add the oil, orange juice and zest, and vanilla and stir. Add to the dry ingredients and stir just until the dry ingredients are blended in.(The batter will be thick; don't fret.) Fold in the rhubarb—it will add moisture to the batter.
- Spoon into prepared muffin tins and bake at 350°F for 25 to 30 minutes.
The quintessential rhubarb in the backyards of our prairie youth was thicker and more green than the snappy little red stalks I prefer for baking. In Vancouver, the best rhubarb I’ve found is available at farmers’ markets from Brian Patterson and Yolanda Versterre of Shalefield Organic Gardens. A short travel excursion.
Here is the recipe for the Rhubarb Almond Bars.
Segnit, Niki. The Flavor Thesaurus. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010.
Waters, Alice. Chez Panisse Fruit. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. The bible of fruit desserts. Her recipe for Rhubarb Galette, with its glistening ruby glaze (made from rhubarb stems: waste not!) and amaretti cookie crumbles on the base of the dough, is worth the price of the book.