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Rhubarb Breaks Out, for a Sure, and Sweet, Sign That Spring Is Here

A lilac bush, a clump of rhubarb and a stonewall may be all that remains of a homestead abandoned a hundred years earlier. The dark green leaves, full of oxalic acid, are poisonous, but the bright pink or drab green stems are loaded with flavor. Rhubarb is the most forgiving plant in my garden. It doesn’t need much attention; an occasional scoop of well-rotted manure and cutting back the flowering stalks when they appear keeps the harvest coming until early summer. It doesn’t matter if it’s been overrun with brambles, surrounded by tall grass or ignored since last June. Pinky green shoots push up through the cold earth. Within a week, pink stems are topped with dark green leaves. Rhubarb, along with the phoebes that nest in the rafters of our barn, announces that it’s springtime in Vermont.

Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but I think of it as a fruit that can be roasted and topped with a dollop of yogurt, baked in a pie or a cake.

A week after the sprouts had appeared, I wasn’t patient enough to wait any longer. There wasn’t enough rhubarb to make a pie, but there were enough stems for a “dessert for one.” That bowl of sweet-tart, roasted rhubarb satisfied my cravings.

Roasted Rhubarb

4 stalks of rhubarb, cut in 1-inch pieces

2 Tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 cup heavy cream

a sprinkle of nutmeg

I put the rhubarb into a bowl along with the sugar and set it aside. While the sugar and rhubarb “rested,” I weeded the rhubarb patch. After half an hour of weeding, I poured the rhubarb and the juice that had formed into a buttered ceramic baking dish. After roasting for half an hour, in oven that had been preheated to 350 degrees, it was tender and surrounded with sweet pink syrup. I poured in the heavy cream, added a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg and returned it to the oven for 10 more minutes.

I eat it still hot from the oven, with an antique silver spoon that was my grandmother’s, but no one complains when it’s served chilled as dessert or topped with granola for breakfast. Rhubarb from the garden with cream from a local dairy farm and local maple syrup is eating local at its best and edible proof that spring has come.

A piece of pie is often breakfast in New England. A slice of custardy rhubarb pie served with a steamy cup of coffee does the trick. It was my friend Kathy who generously served me my first piece of this pie. Here’s how I made it when I was able to harvest enough rhubarb:

Kathy’s Grandmother’s Rhubarb Pie

1 1 2 cups granulated sugar

4 Tablespoons flour

3 Tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 eggs

4 cups rhubarb, sliced

1 unbaked pie crust

I used a whisk to combine the sugar, flour, milk, nutmeg, vanilla and eggs in a medium mixing bowl. When it was lump-free, I stirred in the rhubarb. After I spooned the fruit mixture into a pie pan lined with an unbaked pie crust that extended 2 inches over the sides, I folded the extra pastry back onto the filling. This gave the pie a rustic look and made fancy latticework unnecessary. It took 70 minutes in a 375-degree oven for the crust to brown and the custard to set.

Rhubarb is also the perfect fruit to top a crumb cake. I began baking crumb cakes when I stumbled on a recipe that belonged to my mother-in-law. I was looking through the Cakes and Cookies section of her 1930 edition of the Chicago Daily News Cook Book when I found a recipe titled “Crumb Cake with Fruit” on a piece of grease-stained, brown paper. This very short recipe was intriguing. It read, “Use fingers to mix together one and a half cups flour, half a cup sugar, half a cup butter, and a pinch salt. Add spice. Save three-quarters cup of crumbs. Put rest into bottom of pan. Put sweetened fruit on top. Sprinkle rest of crumbs around. Bake until golden.” Pretty simple, but what kind of fruit? Should I use a big pan or a small one? How long should it bake and at what temperature? Here’s how I filled in the details:

Rhubarb Crumb Cake

1 1 2 cups flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup unsalted butter

4 cups rhubarb, cut in 1-inch slices

1 cup granulated sugar

I set the oven to pre-heat to 425 degrees and used my fingers to combine the flour, sugar, salt, cardamom and butter until the mixture looked like coarse sand. I reserved three-quarters of a cup of the crumbs and pressed the remainder into the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan. After combining the rhubarb with one cup of sugar, I put the fruit on top of the crumb layer and then sprinkled the reserved crumbs onto the fruit. I put the cake on a cookie sheet to catch any drips, and after baking 45 minutes, the rhubarb was bubbling, the crumbs were golden and the scent of cardamom filled the air.

The rhubarb harvest should last for at least another month. Although the recipe I found for Polish rhubarb lentil soup looks interesting, I’m planning on sticking with recipes that combine rhubarb with sugar rather than rhubarb with lentils or any other vegetable.

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she cooks, writes and paints. Her food blog can be found at www.carolegbert.com.