Monday, May 30, 2011

Sweet Teeth and Rhubarb

I have a sweet tooth that is as deep as the ocean and as high as the sky. That is to say that my sweet tooth is practically infinite. I wonder if my love for sugar is genetic, if maybe I was born this way. But I've since discovered all these articles suggesting that sugar is a kind of drug that, once introduced into our diets, we forever crave. Therefore, this love of sweets must have been learned. And I think I know where it all began.

Pretty well all of my early childhood memories take place at my grandparents house in Burnaby. This place was an oasis, an escape from reality in a sense. I remember a lot of things about that house. I remember climbing to the top of the great maple tree in the front yard, where I would sit for hours, thinking, writing, spying on unsuspecting next door neighbours, and dreaming of far away lands. I hid from the world within a thick blanket of the tree's dark, dense leaves. I also remember the freezer in the basement, which my Grandma would fill with Popsicles, Revellos and Fudgesicles. We never had such fun treats at my house (Grandma also had a cupboard filled with forbidden snacks such as Gushers, Fruit by the Foot, and Fruit Roll Up's!). I once found an entire tray of Petite Fours tucked away in the freezer. I distinctly remember pulling out the box and popping the beautifully decorated sugary squares into my mouth one after the other after the other while I sat perched on top of the freezer. All this goes to say that my love of sweets was fueled by my grandparents, who filled my belly time and time again with all sorts of sugary snacks.

Another memory I have of that big beautiful house was the rhubarb plant in the backyard that nearly consumed an entire plot of land. I remember it's bright red stalks that grew as past my knees and leaves as big as my head. I remember my horror when I took a bite out of one of the luscious stalks and discovered how incredibly awful it was capable of tasting. I couldn't feel my tongue for a week. Strangely enough, I don't remember ever trying rhubarb again until after my grandpa passed away, and after my grandma sold their home. Somehow rhubarb made it's way back into my life, in far tastier forms such as tarts, pies, and gelato. My sweet tooth prohibits me from turning down a slice of pie, and it so happens that rhubarb combined with sugar, and a tiny bit of grated orange zest tastes really damn good. Old memories dissolved, and voila! Rhubarb is one of my all time favorite spring ingredients.
Last week it was nice enough to put burgers on the grill and eat dinner outside in the sun. Sunshine don't come easy these days so to celebrate the occasion, I volunteered to make dessert. Rhubarb is in season and I was feeling slightly sentimental so I opted for something comforting: Rhubarb Crumb Cake. Light and buttery, sweet and crumbly, slightly tart from the rhubarb, and completely perfect for a spring evening spent on the patio... straight up rhubarb love. I keep calling it a crumb cake because you do make a bunch of delicious sugary crumbs to sprinkle on top, although I suppose it is also a kind of Coffee cake. Technicalities aside, this cake satisfied my sweet tooth in a totally adequate way. And I got my rhubarb fix. Win! When the rain settled in again the next morning, it made a balanced meal accompanied by a big mug of tea. That's what's so nice about this cake: it's appropriate for any kind of weather, no matter how bipolar.

I am thankful for springtime (regardless of it's rude weather), rhubarb, and grandparents who were kind enough to nurture my sweet tooth which otherwise may not exist today.

Big Crumb Coffee Cake with Rhubarb
Adapted from The New York Times 6/6/07

Butter for greasing pan

For the rhubarb filling:
1/2 pound rhubarb, trimmed
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

For the crumbs:
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, melted
1 3/4 cups cake flour

For the cake:
1/3 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. For filling, slice rhubarb 1/2 inch thick and toss with sugar, cornstarch and ginger. Set aside.

To make crumbs, in a large bowl, whisk sugars, spices, and slat into melted butter until smooth. Then, add flour with a spatula or wooden spoon. It will look and feel like solid dough. Leave it pressed together in the bottom of a small bowl and set aside.

To prepare cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about 1/2 cup batter and set aside.

Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon rhubarb over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over rhubarb; it does not have to be even.

Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter (it might be moist from rhubarb), 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

Yield: 6-8 servings.


  1. Oh Jacq. This made me teary for some reason. I miss that house, and the hours and hours and hours spent playing games of make-believe and singing, and how when you first walked in the first thing you did was always head to the kitchen for food.

    I too remember eating Gushers and Fruit roll-ups, the only time we were allowed them, sitting in the dark car driving home, falling asleep on the back seat.

    And Fudgsicles stolen from the freezer on hot summer days, asking the Mathesion's if we could play in their "secret garden". Taking pickles off the table before dinner. I remember once even eating some baking powder out of the basement fridge... weird, huh?

    Ha, did you ever eat sitting at the head of the table? Every single meal I think we always sat at the end or along the sides, but never ever in Grandpa's seat closest to the windows. It was a big table, right? With an undercloth, plastic cover, then a table cloth. Never the bare wood.

    That house was all about food. Good, fresh, filling, different flavours and combinations than any my friends ever had. It was there that I was first introduced to the idea of a cold soup, maus or something, cherry and thick and sweet and I couldn't believe it... it was like pie filling but no one got mad at you for eating it.

    Perhaps it is nostalgia for childhood...but for me, that house and the events surrounding it and in it make up part of the core of who I am today.

    Well written darling. Love and miss you!