Sunday, June 20, 2010

Julia Child's Rhubarb Shortbread

In my opinion rhubarb is totally underrated.  The more I’ve cooked with it over the years, the more eagerly I’ve come to anticipate its appearance at the market alongside more mainstream spring favorites like asparagus, strawberries, and peas.  It seems I may be one of the few feeling this way, though, because there is never a crowd around the bin of rhubarb like I see at the peas and asparagus or a line at the checkout like those at the strawberry stand.  I’m usually alone with the rhubarb, a solitary figure sorting through the gangly stalks.

I realize it doesn’t help matters that rhubarb looks like red celery and who in the history of mankind has ever gotten worked up over a stick of celery?   I also realize most Americans are wired for sweets and rhubarb has the tart/sour thing going on.  But does it really deserve the reaction I often get when I mention that’s what’s for dessert?  I’ve had more than one person wrinkle their nose and exclaim “Rhubarb?!” as if I’d made something out of fish oil…

To be fair, I didn’t always love rhubarb, either.  Growing up in New Jersey we had one rhubarb plant growing alongside our many rows of peonies.  I can’t recall any of it being picked and brought into our kitchen, ever.  In fact, the plant remained untouched every year until it got so big my Dad would cut it back to the ground and toss the stalks and leaves onto the mulch pile.
I’m not sure why the plant was even there in the first place.  It must have been something one of us kids dragged home from school and my parents, not knowing what to do with it, stuck it in a flowerbed in an inconspicuous spot.  Any curiosity I might have had about cooking it quickly disappeared after being warned that rhubarb leaves are toxic and should not be eaten (Not that I made a habit of ambling out to the garden and munching on random leaves, but still.  It sounded like scary stuff.)

No, my love of rhubarb started as an adult when I began shopping the farmers markets in the city and to be honest, it was the color that drew me in, not its culinary reputation.  After a winter of looking at a sea of white, green and brown food at the market, I found the brilliant crimson of rhubarb a visual shock to the system, a welcome breath of fresh spring air.

One year I decided it was time to stop looking and start buying.  No matter I didn’t know what to do with the stuff; I’d figure it out.  I went home and searched through my cookbooks before settling on what turned out to be a wonderful recipe from Carolyne Roehm for rhubarb bread that I’ve been making ever since. 

So what do I find so amazing about rhubarb?  For starters, I love how the jewel–like red of raw rhubarb fades to pale rose when cooked.  Then there is the flavor: the tartness inherent in uncooked rhubarb softens but doesn’t dissipate when something sweet like sugar and/or strawberries (a common pairing) are added.  The result is a pleasant, tangy flavor that gives a little zip to counterbalance the often buttery or creamy characteristics of whatever it is partnered with, such as ice cream, ricotta, or crumble.

Botanically speaking, rhubarb is a vegetable but is typically treated in cooking and baking like a fruit.  It is a cool-season perennial and needs a few months of frost to trigger spring growth.  For this reason rhubarb is primarily a crop of the northern United States and Canada.  It shows up in New York markets around the middle of May and stays briefly until the beginning of July.  The good news is it freezes well so you can stock up before it disappears.  Look for firm, red stalks that are thin; the fatter the stalk, the greater chance of it being fibrous, in which case you may want to peel it as you would celery.

What I neglected to mention before is the people who wrinkled their noses at the prospect of eating my rhubarb desserts all came back for seconds.  Which leads me to believe rhubarb’s lack of popularity has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with perception.  Maybe it’s because it seems old-fashioned?  Has an odd name?  Its homely looks?  Or maybe it’s because, unlike its rival for springtime affection, the strawberry, it can’t be eaten raw and requires a bit of work (i.e. cooking) to make it palatable?  For those of you willing to get over the superficial and spend a little time (not a lot) in the kitchen, give it a try.  I bet you fall in love with it, just as I have. And that’s okay with me; I’ll be happy to wait in line with you to buy it.
Hungarian Shortbread
From Baking with Julia by Julia Child and Dorie Greenspan

Julia Child calls this Hungarian shortbread and although it’s not like any shortbread I’ve had before, who am I to argue with Julia?   From what I understand what makes this Hungarian shortbread and not, say, Scottish shortbread, is the jam sandwiched between the two layers of dough.
Speaking of dough, that’s the crazy thing about this recipe.  The dough is frozen then grated into the pan.  You heard me right – frozen and grated.  Prepare for a serious upper body workout!  It’s worth the effort; the dough turns out crumbly and light.

You can use store bought jam instead of your own but I’m telling you, this jam is super, super easy to make.  The rhubarb cooks down in no time at all and will be off the stove in 10 minutes.

For the jam
1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
1 vanilla bean

For the shortbread
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
4 large egg yolks
2 cups granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Make the jam:  Combine rhubarb, sugar, and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan.  Split vanilla bean, scrape the seeds into the pan, and toss in the pod.  Bring to a simmer over low heat, cook, stirring often, until the rhubarb softens and forms a soft mass, about 10 minutes.  

Remove and discard vanilla bean.  Transfer to a shallow bowl and let cool.  Can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.  If refrigerated, return to room temperature before using.

Make the shortbread:  In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on high speed until pale and fluffy.  Add egg yolks and sugar, and beat until sugar is dissolved and the mixture is light.  Reduce mixer speed to low, and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until the ingredients are incorporated.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and cut into two pieces.  Shape each piece into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap.  Place in freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.  Can be made ahead and frozen for up to one month.  Thaw in refrigerator overnight.

Assemble and bake:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in center.  Remove one ball of dough from freezer and, using the large holes on a box grater, grate the dough into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.  Pat the dough gently just to get it into the corners (you don’t want to press it down), and spread with the rhubarb jam.  

Grate the remaining dough over the jam, and press it lightly to distribute it evenly.  Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar as soon as it is removed from oven.  Cool on a wire rack.  

Cut the shortbread into bars when it is cool.  You can cut whatever size bars please you, although as a rough guide, 3-inch squares, or rectangles 1 ½-inches x 3-inches make nice servings.  Store covered at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Makes 12 – 24 bars

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