I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70’s in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam’s been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
Now I’m not sure if we’ve chatted about this before, but I’m not the best sick person. I don’t do well just laying around, always feeling like I should at least be reading something engaging or watching an interesting movie or taking care of a writing project or two. So after waking up far too early on Sunday, my version of laying low was organizing our baking cupboard, getting our whole grain flours in order, putting on a pot of tea, and getting to work slicing rhubarb. While my to-do list was left alone, I did bake these Rhubarb Custard Crisp Bars, and I’ve been thankful to have them around. Little slices go well with tea. I’ve learned today they’re also quite nice for breakfast. The tart rhubarb is balanced with just enough sugar (they’re not at all too sweet), the spelt crust brings out a buttery toastiness, and the nutty oat topping will remind you of every good fruit crisp you’ve eaten. They’ll remind you of late spring and gentle sunshine and of not being cooped up inside.
If you’ve never worked with spelt flour before, it’s pretty wonderful. It’s a great entry way into whole-grain baking, so if you often experiment with whole wheat flour and are looking for something new, today’s your day. Kim Boyce, author of my very favorite baking book, Good to the Grain, describes spelt flour as having a “slightly tart aroma” yet being “distinctly sweet.” It substitutes 1:1 for all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour for most recipes, so you can feel free to experiment away. For these bars, I used a recipe I’ve been looking forward to using from Chicken and Egg but made some significant changes, using whole-grain flour, taking down the sugar by half, and adding my crumble topping I like to use on pies and crisps. The result is a sturdier bite of rhubarb crisp, one you can actually hold in your hand and bring to the couch with you, if need be. Although they’d be just as happy, I think, outdoors on a picnic blanket.
By all means, use all-purpose or whole-wheat flour here if that’s what you prefer or have on hand. And for the crumble topping, feel free to use pecans (or any other nut) instead of walnuts. The crust is simple to make, but if you’re more comfortable working with a food processor to blend in the butter and make your crust, that will work just fine, too. Next time I bake these, I’d love to experiment by layering in some fresh sliced strawberries and sprinkling candied ginger on top.
For Crisp Topping:
For the Crust: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 11 x 7 inch glass baking pan.
Stir together the spelt flour, brown sugar and salt in a small bowl until combined. Work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the butter is evenly distributed and the size of small pebbles. The mixture should be dry and crumbly.
Press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the pan to form the crust. Bake for 20 minutes or until the crust is turning a nice golden brown.
For the Filling: While the crust bakes, whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and ground ginger until smooth. Add the dry mixture into the egg mixture and whisk to combine. Add the rhubarb and stir until it’s completely coated.
For the Topping: In a medium bowl, combine the spelt flour, oats, brown sugar, salt, ground ginger, and chopped walnuts. Stir to combine together. Add the melted butter and mix it into the dry ingredients (I use my hands at this point). The crisp topping should be quite clumpy. If it seems to wet or smooth, feel free to add a bit more flour or oats, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Pour the rhubarb filling over the prepared crust. Sprinkle the crisp topping over the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top if golden brown. Cool for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice and serve slightly warm. They are best on the day they’re made, but if you have leftovers, they keep beautifully covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.