Since our winter was over in the blink of an eye this year, my desire for spring recipes was prematurely activated, and I have been stalking the produce sections, looking for something besides citrus (which, although wonderful, gets boring after five months). Then last month, I saw it. Tiny red stalks peeking out from underneath the leafy beets and chards.
Rhubarb. At last. Unfortunately, it was running about $10 a pound. It’ll probably go down in the coming months, at which time I will use it so much that I will get as sick of it as I am sick of citrus right now.
Rhubarb is grown as a vegetable in the West, but it was first used as a medicinal plant in China, its roots coveted for their cathartic and laxative qualities. It was known to the Arabs, Greeks and Romans, and was traded along the Silk Road, demanding a higher price than saffron and cinnamon. Marco Polo wrote about it a lot, and it is thought that he made special treks in search of a source. Arabic influence brought rhubarb trade to Venice by the early 1600s, and a few decades later it made its way through Europe. Attempts to cultivate the medicinal plant in Europe never yielded one of a quality equal to that of the Chinese. Europeans did discover, however, upon the procurement of cheap sugar, that rhubarb had delicious culinary value. When it made its way to the colonies, it caught on fast. (Its arrival is often credited to Ben Franklin. Geez, what didn’t that guy do?)
Rhubarb spread west with pioneers, who renamed it “pie plant,” a name you might recognize if you are a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Today it is grown most frequently as an ornamental plant, its flavorful possibilities all but unknown to the general public. Its most common usage in these parts is as a show business device to simulate unintelligible speech. Used since the early days of radio, actors mumbling “rhubarb, rhubarb” sound surprisingly like a much larger crowd.
I’m pretty sure my love for rhubarb, in part, comes from the surge of superiority I feel whenever I bring it up to the checkout. Even in the “good” stores, cashiers still search for “red celery” on their produce code cheat sheets. (This is where I would typically rant for 15 minutes about the lack of customer service in the modern world. Just insert your own similar thoughts here, because I need to stay on task.) I know rhubarb well, because we had it growing in our yard when I was a kid and would eat the stalks raw, dipped in sugar. Having been warned against eating the poisonous leaves, we would dare each other to eat as close to them as we could.
There are a dozen things that you can make with rhubarb, including pickles, jam, chutney, upside-down cake, tarts and pie. It is seemingly always paired with strawberries, because the two come into season together, and the berry’s sweetness is considered the perfect foil for the tart rhubarb. But I am not a fan of baked strawberries. Their muted colors are visually unimpressive, and I don’t need their sweetness. When it comes to dessert, I prefer unadulterated rhubarb, in its simplest form. My mother’s go-to dessert, apple crisp, would get a spring makeover with rhubarb. And to me that is still the world’s best dessert. It’s easy, fast and really, really good.
The thing that makes a crisp so easy is the streusel. It is a German word, from the same root as streuen or strew, meaning something scattered. And scatter is exactly what you do with streusel, on top of coffee cakes, muffins, pies and, best of all, fruit. (By the way, it is totally unrelated to strudel, which is a completely different Viennese dessert.) In this country it is frequently called crisp, crumble or crumb topping. It is not — I repeat, not — a cobbler topping, although it is frequently mislabeled as such. (Cobbler topping is a dough, not a crumble.)
Streusel’s crumbly texture comes from butter, sugar and flour. When baked, it becomes crispy, chewy and caramelized, all at the same time. Streusel is an easy mixture to make, and even easier if you make a large batch ahead and keep it in the freezer, which is what we do in the bakery business. The recipe couldn’t be easier. Bakers use a ratio of 1:1:2:, which translates to one part butter, one part sugar and two parts flour. The process is simple, but the real beauty comes in your ability to play around with flavor. Use any sugar, any flour and any type of garnish you’d like. Mix white, brown or date sugar with whole-wheat, rye, buckwheat or gluten-free flour. Add oats, nuts, seeds or spices to complete your creation.
For instance, you can make your streusel with date sugar, coconut, macadamia nuts and a pinch of nutmeg to top off your pineapple coffee cake or banana muffins. Or use raw sugar with whole-wheat flour, oats, flax, sesame and sunflower seeds to top bran muffins, or a pan full of ripe pears and pomegranate seeds for a hearty autumnal crisp. A brown-sugar, whole-wheat streusel with pecans and allspice is lovely on top of pumpkin bread. And finely grated lemon or orange zest, along with a pinch of dried thyme, will make a great streusel to top your boysenberry pie.
The possibilities really are endless.
But to me, the best, most delicious version of streusel is the original, sprinkled generously on top of a pan of rhubarb. Streusel and rhubarb — a match made in heaven.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of No-Churn Ice Cream (St. Martin’s Griffin), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.