A new best

Favorites.  Bests.  Mosts-of-all.  Superlatives make me nervous.  It’s the way they tie your hands, bind your wrists so that you have no choice but to reach for one thing at a time.  That’s no fun at all.  I don’t play favorites, then – not my game.  I do, however, collect them.  Having more than one favorite may undercut the very meaning of the word, I know, but it’s much nicer this way.  It’s a simple matter of storage.  Some people have pedestals; I keep a shelf, wide, and deep, and bowed beneath the weight of my favorite, most loved things.  It’s cluttered and crammed, at capacity, for sure, until something new comes along.  Then, up that new thing goes, in with the rest.  There’s always room for one more.  My shelf may be heavy with almonds, but I recently stashed some pistachios up there, and a new best book, too, between one old best and another.  I’ve met new best people, made new best friends, stuffed them right in.  No one ever complains.      

It’s amazing to me how these best things keep coming along.  Take running, which I never once tried until I was twenty-three years old, and now makes my day every time.  Or that gem, Harper’s Magazine, which I picked up for the first time in an airport in 2010 and haven’t put down since, or, hey, this very site!  I couldn’t have imagined it just a few short years ago.  Then there’s the matter of a certain tiny human.  Last year this time, she didn’t exist.  Now, she’s among the very best things around.   

It makes me wonder how many more best things are out there, how many new favorites await.  A lot, I bet.  I can’t wait to see. 

What has me going on about all of this today is rhubarb.  For most of my life, I couldn’t have even told you what it is.  I remember thinking, as a kid, that it sounded old-timey, charming, and quaint.  I grew up in a little pocket of northeast Ohio called Orange Village, which also sounds old-timey, charming, and quaint, like the kind of place where people go around eating rhubarb all the time.  It isn’t.  Or if it is, I was running in the wrong circles, because it took me nearly three decades on this earth before I finally brought rhubarb home and put it to work.  We were leaving the next day for a few weeks away, and I remember stitching together what was left of our flours, butter, and sugar into a crumble, oozy and pink.  The rhubarb smelled of flowers but tasted much better; it was warm and juicy, rosy and tart, my newest favorite food.  When we dropped off the leftovers at our neighbors’ place before our flight, I felt like I was handing over something special.

Rhubarb crumble has taken on many forms in my kitchen since then.  I made a crumb-topped streusel-y version one year, and a nubby oat-topped version the next.  They were great, all of them, and the only reason I never deposited them here was the lack of an actual recipe.  Sometimes I’d riff on one thing or another, but usually I’d just pinch and scoop and rub my way to a topping that felt right.  This time, finally, I wrote it down. 

The plan for today’s crumble actually started with a cake, one from Nigel Slater’s beautiful new volume, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. (Happy birthday to me; thank you Molly B.).  It’s called rhubarb cinnamon polenta cake, and I saw it first, before the book was even in my hands, over on Alana’s site.  You know how I feel about corn meal, and rhubarb, and cinnamon, so you can guess how excited I was to see them all together like that.  I planned to bake it for a dinner with friends, but at the last minute the crumble urge struck.  So I grabbed the best of what Slater’s cake had to offer (the corn meal, the rhubarb, and the cinnamon, in case you missed it) and transplanted it into Marian Burros’s plum crumble, a recipe that’s lived up on my favorites shelf for a while now.  With that kind of parentage, it’s no surprise that the resulting dessert is very good.

The crumble begins as most crumbles do, with a mess of dry ingredients whisked together in a bowl.  But instead of the butter that usually comes next, cold cubes rubbed to bits among the crumbs, there’s an egg.  You massage it into the mixture, sprinkle the topping over the fruit, and only then do you spoon the butter, melted, over the whole thing.  Out of the oven, the crust is more a hard, crackly shell than a loose sheet of crumbs.  You get the sense that, were it not for the jammy fruit gluing it into place, you might be able to lift the topping off like a lid, in a single crisp piece.  Luisa likens it to a cookie, and I know what she means.  The added crunch of the cornmeal is right at home.  And just like that, I have a new best on my hands.  A new favorite, yes, if I’ve ever seen one, and I have, and I will, and happily so. 

Rhubarb Polenta Crumble
Inspired by Nigel Slater’s Rhubarb Cinnamon Polenta Cake, from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard and adapted from Marian Burros’s Plum Crumble, via Luisa and Molly

I’m no sissy about butter.  When the original recipe called for an entire stick, I didn’t blink.  But there was something off about the texture, how the crumb got over-saturated in places and the excess butter swirled weirdly around the fruit.  So the second time around I cut out a tablespoon, per Molly’s suggestion, and finally, I cut out one more.  That was the sweet spot, for me.  You get just a few little patches of more crumbly, less crackly crust this way.  It’s a nice mix.

For the filling:
1 pound rhubarb, chopped
3 tablespoons lightly packed brown sugar

For the topping:
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup coarse-ground corn meal
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Grated zest of a small lemon
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten well
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 

Stir together the rhubarb and the brown sugar in a bowl.  Scrape the sugared fruit into an ungreased 9-inch pie plate, and set aside.

Combine the granulated sugar, flour, corn meal, cinnamon, lemon zest, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.  Add the beaten egg, and work it into the dry ingredients with your hands, rubbing the clumps and bits of moistened crumbs between your fingertips and your palms.  Sprinkle evenly over the rhubarb.

Spoon the butter over the topping and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is browned and the juices from the rhubarb bubble up around the edges. 

Serve warm or at room temperature, with yogurt, à la Luisa, crème fraîche à la Molly, or vanilla ice cream, à la me. 


Molly said...

I wish there was sound on that photo of Mia. Nothing beats a baby laugh. Bet there was even a gurgle before that giggle.

alexandria said...

It's so easy to become immersed in your words. I'm looking forward to trying this recipe out.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing!
-Erin Smith

Danielle said...

What a face.
And I'm making this soon. Really soon.

Sue/the view from great island said...

Beautifully written, and you're so right---we have to always be on the lookout for our 'new bests', and this crumble is one for me, too! I make and eat crisps and crumbles all the time, but for some reason I've never made one with rhubarb. Gotta fix that.

Molly said...

I love this post. Especially because it includes many of MY favorite bests: you, Mia, Nigel Slater, birthday presents, rhubarb, dessert, rhubarb dessert, rhubarb desserts made by you, ETC. xoxo

Jess said...

Ooooh, you know it, Molly. This kid is a professional giggler. It's the cutest thing.

Alexandria - Thank you so much. And I just clicked over to your beautiful site. I look forward to exploring more. Hope you'll enjoy the crumble!

Erin - Thank you!

Danielle - I know! It's a miracle I haven't yet eaten her alive.

Sue - Yes, yes, do try the rhubarb! It's a good one for the crumble collection.

Molly - xoxo. See you soon, friend.

shari said...

this was the first rhubarb dessert i made this spring! quite delicious. i want to make it again. xo

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Ah yes, I think Nigel's rhubarb cake recipe reached superstar status this spring. It was quite good. And it's quite gone now. (What an amazing book Ripe is.) Love the idea of marrying him with Marian.

Jess said...

So glad you liked it, Shari! A friend of mine requested that I make it again for him this weekend, and I will, but I'm thinking I'd like to add another rhubarb dessert to the mix this season. Any suggestions?

A Plum By Any Other Name - Yes, I saw on your site that you made that cake, too! I will, of course, have to try it now that my crumble urge has been satisfied.

koshercamembert said...

Jess - you always introduce me to such great cookbooks. Plenty became a recent favorite when you wrote about their squash salad and cabbage slaw. I may just need to indulge in yet another cookbook for my own bowed, sagging shelf (well, shelves).

Jess said...

Well, when the shelf is filled to capacity, there's always the bedside table. And then the bedside floor! Ripe is a fat, wonderful volume, worth every inch of space it takes up. I think you'll like it a lot.

Žiupsnelisdruskos said...

Wow! This must have been the best rhubarb crumble I ever made. Ever! Thanks so much for sharing.

I really want to try the original cinnamon polenta rhubarb cake now. It must be lush!

shari said...

i made the rhubarb caramel swirl ice cream from the new york times but i had trouble with the recipe. you should give it a try and see what you think. not sure why but every time i attempt homemade ice cream something goes wrong.

Jess said...

Ziupsnelisdruskos - I'm so glad the crumble was a hit. Such a great take on the topping, right? I've also been thinking about circling back around to that cake. Soon, soon!

Hi, Shari. I saw that recipe, but didn't think to give it a go because, frankly, the combination of rhubarb and caramel sounds weird to me. Melissa Clark has never steered me wrong though, so I suppose it's worth a shot. I'm curious to hear what kind of trouble ice cream has been giving you. We shall discuss...

talley said...

Inspired by your rhubarb crumble I made the plum crumble, but tweaked it as you suggested - a bit less butter, some cornmeal, and kept the ginger. It was heavenly. Crumbles are heavenly. Summer is heavenly. Eating crumbles in the summer is heavenly. Wonderful post, and wonderful inspiration. This one is going in my keeper-file. And that Mia...just amazing!

Jess said...

Talley - Ahhh, the plum version. I haven't been excited about any of the plums that have come my way so far this year, but soon, soon I'll be following suit. Yes, yes, more summer, please.