Bring on the Tang!
Rhubarb crumb bars, sour cherry focaccia, Aldi shopping tips, and more!
For me, spring arrives when the first boxes of rhubarb appear in the market. Why rhubarb? Well, it’s one of the earliest crops here in the northeast, and it confirms that mother earth is still rotating, and the seasons are indeed changing. (Predictability is a good thing these days.)
But the thing about rhubarb is that it’s a weird fruit (maybe because it’s really a veg). It’s way too sour to eat raw, the stalks are long and awkward, it can be stringy, and you never know if it’s ripe (nothing to press or sniff). Plus, its leaves are considered poisonous! But when it’s cooked and sweetened, it has a wonderful sweet-tart flavor that’s completely unique. That and its gorgeous pink-red color are enough to spark my cooking excitement after a long winter of brown stews and braises.
I bought my first bundle of rhubarb last week and then agonized over what to make with the magnificent stalks. A cake, a crisp, or perhaps a savory relish? I landed on these luscious bars, which I developed several years ago, because they deliver a big tangy rhubarb punch. The crust and topping, a crumbly shortbread fragrant with lemon and ginger, encompasses a bright pink layer of sweet-tart rhubarb that’s been cooked with sugar and lemon until its texture is jam-like and velvety (also, it’s great on its own as a spread.) The rhubarb comes this close to overwhelming the bars, but stops just in time, providing a burst of bright flavor against the buttery crumb that’s downright heavenly.
It may be weird, but rhubarb delivers a flavor and color unmatched by any other fruit or vegetable. And its in-season availability is somewhat fleeting, so now’s the time to warm up to these weird stalks and show them the love they deserve!
The thinnest stalks are the tenderest and least bitter.
When buying rhubarb, choose firm stalks with no brownish edges. Thin stalks are likely to be more tender; thick ones can be tough and stringy, so you may want to peel thicker stalks with a vegetable peeler before you cook them. And a crown of bright green leaves is a good sign: they indicate that the stalks were a relatively recent harvest.
Rhubarb Crumb Bars
Makes 15 to 20 bars
When rhubarb is in season, these bars are just the thing to enjoy their sweet-tangy flavor. You can add some fresh raspberries to the filling too, if you like.
For the filling
1 1/4 pounds rhubarb (about 7 to 8 medium stalks)
½ cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the crust
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 ½ tsp. lemon zest
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ sticks (12 oz.) butter, cold and cut into pieces
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-x-13-inch baking pan.
Rinse and trim the ends off the rhubarb stalks, and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Transfer to a large pot. Add the sugar, lemon juice, and ¼ cup water, and toss to mix. Bring the mix to a boil and cook, stirring often, until the rhubarb has broken down and the mixture is thick. Add a little more water if needed as it cooks if it gets too thick. This will take about 20 minutes or so. Stir in the vanilla and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, make the crust. Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, lemon zest, baking soda, salt, and ginger in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mix has a texture of coarse crumbs.
Reserve about 1 ½ cups of the mixture. Press the remaining mixture into the the bottom of the prepared pan, patting it into an even layer.
Spread the cooled filling evenly over the crust, and then crumble the remaining dough over the filling.
Bake until the topping is lightly golden and set, 30 minutes. Cool before cutting.
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