The Rhubarb Variations

In recent years, I’ve gotten really excited about rhubarb. I even went so far as to make it the main image of my cookbook cover. My love of the so-called “Barbarian Root” began while I was writing the book, as I was actively challenging myself to use ingredients that I had always shied away from. Since then, whenever I see these red stalks at the market, I’m compelled to take some home. Recently, I used them to whip up a naturally pink frosting for cupcakes. And since I was making rhubarb frosting, why not make a rhubarb cake? Thus were two new rhubarb incarnations added to my repertoire.

After several trial runs in which I wasted high-quality organic dairy goods from the farmer’s market—including butter and a kind of fromage blanc—I finally discovered that the best base for my frosting was heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks. I also tried using honey as my sweetener, but a panel of discerning judges (including such food luminaries as my sister, my fiancé, and myself) all found that the tang of the honey combined with the tartness of the rhubarb produced a sour end result. I ended up using organic Fair Trade sugar, made from evaporated cane juice. Ethically, it wouldn’t normally be my top choice, because of the environmental damage associated with sugar production, even organic sugar, as explained in this review of the book, Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution by Heather Rogers.

The rhubarb frosting is essentially a rhubarb fool, the traditional British dessert of whipped cream and pureed, cooked fruit. Surprisingly, when a high ratio of pureed fruit is mixed into the cream, and then refrigerated for at least one hour, the mixture is sturdy enough to hold its shape as a cake frosting. I added strawberries to the fruit puree because it allowed me to cut down on the amount of sugar needed to sweeten the frosting. The result was rich, tangy, and sweet enough to please all of my tasters.

The cake was a bit trickier. I had a bottle of buttermilk in my fridge and I was determined that it should be paired with the rhubarb in the cake. I found several recipes that called for both, but the two that I tried had a coarse, dry texture, much like cornbread. I adore cornbread, but I needed something more delicate. Finally, I found the right recipe, provided by the ever-reliable Martha Stewart. Her recipe for rhubarb cake, buttermilk and all, came out fluffy, not too sweet, and with a light layer of crispness on top from a layer of sprinkled cinnamon and sugar. Although the color of the rhubarb fades with baking, you can still see pretty bits of pale pink in every slice. The recipe is meant to be baked in a 9-by-13 baking dish, but it worked beautifully for mini-cupcakes as well. I reduced the cooking time to 30 minutes, down from 35-40 minutes.

For you Rhubarb newbies, I hope these recipes inspire you to use this wonderfully versatile fruit-like vegetable in new ways. For the most dramatic end results, choose the stalks of rhubarb that are the brightest red, as their color remains vibrant even when cooked.

Rhubarb Fool or Frosting

To use as a frosting, allow to cool and solidify in the refrigerator for 1-3 hours. To use this recipe as a stand-alone dessert, layer the whipped cream with the fruit puree in parfait glasses, instead of mixing the two together, and spoon the reduction sauce on top. If serving with the rhubarb cake, use the reduction sauce to decorate the plate, or drizzle over the cake. The sauce can also be used as a simple syrup to flavor drinks.

Makes approximately 3 cups

2 cups chopped rhubarb

2 cups strawberries, washed and stemmed

¼ cup sugar

2 2-inch-long strips orange rind

Pinch of salt

8 ounces heavy whipping cream

Place the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, orange rind, and salt in a saucepan with 1 tablespoon of water. Bring to a boil, stirring often to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, until the fruit is completely soft and breaks apart easily with a spoon.

Place a strainer on top of a bowl and pour the fruit through the strainer. Press down on the fruit and push out as much of the cooking liquid as possible, and reserve. Pull out the orange rind and discard. Pour the fruit into a blender and blend until smooth. Set aside in the refrigerator to cool completely.

Pour the cooking liquid from the fruit into a skillet and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat slightly and reduce until the liquid coats the back of a spoon, stirring occasionally, 3-4 minutes. Remove the rhubarb syrup from the heat and cool to room temperature.

Using a whisk or an electric mixer, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Fold in the chilled rhubarb puree. To serve, spoon the fool into chilled parfait glasses and top with the rhubarb syrup.

Marijane’s Rhubarb Cake from Martha Stewart

The recipe calls for sprinkling the top of the cake with ¼ cup sugar, but I reduced the amount to 2 tablespoons and was happy with the resulting sweetness. If you use this recipe to make mini-cupcakes, as I did, reduce the baking time to about 30 minutes. The recipe makes 36 mini-cupcakes.

Serves 8

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for baking dish

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 large egg

2 cups chopped rhubarb

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a liquid measuring cup, combine buttermilk and vanilla; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer or using a handheld mixer, beat butter with 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg, and beat to combine. Add the flour mixture, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, and starting and ending with the flour mixture. Stir in rhubarb.

Spread batter evenly into prepared baking dish. In a small bowl, stir together remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar evenly over batter. Bake until a cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack in pan for 30 minutes before serving.

7 thoughts on “The Rhubarb Variations

  1. I made rhubarb juice this morning and canned it for a special spring treat later in the year. I had some left over and mixed it with some Sprite. It turned out wonderful.

  2. That is stunning, I had never thought of using fool as a frosting. Imagine the possibilities, apricot and gooseberry spring to mind. Delicious!

  3. Hi Louisa, I bought your cookbooks (actually, I bought a total of four copies, two to give, two to keep) and it has been an absolute pleasure to read, your cookbook got me excited like no other has in years. I have already made a recipe, the blueberry oat cobbler with oat scone topping, which turned out yummy and not too sweet.

    Speaking of sweet, I really appreciated your insight on “green sweeteners” as I have found it difficult to get a feel of what good for us or what's green. I have noticed is that you are not mentioning agave nectar anywhere in your book (unless I missed it), is it not ecological to produce? What are your thoughts on this sweetener? I used agave nectar instead of brown rice syrup in the aforementioned recipe, with good results.

    As for your love of rhubarb… Welcome to the club. I wonder if that rhubarb stalk on the cover was what prompted my very good friend (recipient of gift book #1, #2 actually went to France!) to cover that book… I look forward to more of your recipes here 🙂

  4. Hi Estelle,

    I'm so happy to hear you're enjoying the book! And I love that through you, my little book made its way to France!

    Great question about agave. My feeling on selecting which alternative sweeteners to white sugar I would highlight in the book was that I most comfortable choosing time-tested sweeteners ones like honey and maple syrup. I think of agave syrup as a pretty recent ingredient, and I don't really know the long-term consequences of growing it as a crop for such a large market. I don't know much about the nutritional content of agave, but I do know that sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and dates, etc, have some positive health properties.

    Here is a short, informative article on the website about choosing sweeteners responsibly:….

    I hope that helps.

    Thanks for saying hi, Estelle, and be in touch with recipe questions!

  5. Louisa, thanks so much for your prompt response! I now see where you are coming from. I have once read on a blog comment that the process to make agave nectar is not that efficient and thus not that earth-friendly and was wondering if this was the reason why you left agave out. The link you included was quite helpful – thanks! I will let you know if I have more questions as I dig deeper in the book 🙂

  6. Louisa, thanks so much for your prompt response! I now see where you are coming from. I have once read on a blog comment that the process to make agave nectar is not that efficient and thus not that earth-friendly and was wondering if this was the reason why you left agave out. The link you included was quite helpful – thanks! I will let you know if I have more questions as I dig deeper in the book 🙂

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