Spring has stumbled upon our doorstep. I know this for a fact because rhubarb has been popping up at the farmer’s market two weeks in a row, and each time I visit I ask the vendors anxiously how long it’ll be there. Four more weeks? Maybe five? Last year I bought so much that we ended up freezing quite a bit to use in pies, muffins and scones. I don’t often have this stock-up mentality, but when it comes to rhubarb I find that it’s fleeting and always disappears before I’ve had a chance to truly enjoy it. Fully.
In addition to shopping for rhubarb and hosting our friends from Eugene, flipping through Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap kept me occupied last weekend. Chodron is an American Buddhist and writes a lot about becoming comfortable in our own skin. In this book she discusses a concept called Shenpa, or the feeling of being “hooked” by something – or stuck. Lately I’ve been feeling hooked by my own thoughts more than usual, my mind racing from one thing to the next. I’m not sure if it’s a function of essentially having two jobs (food writing and Marge) and always — inevitably — thinking of the pulls of one while tackling the other. Pema Chodron would probably say that I’m captive to these to-do lists and the constant narrative in my head of what needs to happen next. I’m being held by them.
Chodron’s suggestion on becoming unstuck and uncaptive is to recognize what’s happening, lean into it, and then quietly move on so that it doesn’t become a contest that you’re winning or losing. Sounds like a lifetime of work, really. But the part that struck me is that you’re not trying to change anything or run away or make a drastic move — you just recognize it and actually move in upon it. You can listen to the chatter without doing much about it. I chuckled this past weekend while at the market buying the rhubarb in these photographs as I did just that — listened to my own thoughts: what if the rhubarb disappears this year before I get a chance to make something I’m excited about? Where to begin? What recipes had I bookmarked? Should I buy extra? Should I start stocking up now?
Now please know, I realize there are bigger problems in the world — obviously– than the potential lack of rhubarb on a sunny spring day. That’s not at all what I aimed to write about here. Instead, it’s worth noting that a breakfast cake can teach small lessons. It helped banish that annoying, unnecessary chatter, at least momentarily. There will be other rhubarb recipes in our kitchen in the coming weeks (and maybe even one on the site — who knows?), but for now I’m just trying to enjoy this humble cake slowly, slice by slice. I’m not sure you can ever really experience something fully if you’re constantly wondering and anticipating what will come next. This is true with the projects I do for work, the time I spend with Sam on the weekends, and what I’m baking in the kitchen. This rhubarb cake elicits enough contentment to banish the urge to stock up on rhubarb or to think about what, exactly, I’ll make next. It is good just the way it is — for today.
Now I thought long and hard about what to call this recipe as it’s really not so much a light and airy cake as it is a big, crumbly scone. I love it because it’s simple and quick — no rolling pin, no chilling of dough, no fussing. And it’s a great way to use your favorite seasonal fruits. It does have a bit more sugar than I’d typically use in a breakfast recipe, but keep in mind that rhubarb really needs sugar because it’s so tart. When using sweeter fruits, you could most certainly cut down on the amount of sugar stirred into the fruit mixture, likely by up to a 1/4 cup. All told, it’s not nearly as sweet as a cake and is great served with a generous dollop of plain yogurt and a chunk of time away from your nagging to-do list.
If you’d like to experiment and try different flours, feel free. I do love using barley flour when baking with fruit, but if you’d prefer to substitute all-purpose or another flour (oat flour would be really nice), go right ahead: this is a rustic, forgiving recipe. You could also use any fruits that you like here. Next time I’m going to stir in some strawberry slices to accompany the rhubarb. To carry the cake through the seasons, it’d be wonderful with thinly sliced pears and cardamom in the fall, apples and quince in the winter and a heap of berries in the summer.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 10-inch enamel or glass pie pan.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, 1/2 cup of the sugar, ginger, cardamom, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
Work the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips (or use a pastry blender if you prefer) until it’s incorporated and resembles small coarse peas. Add the beaten egg, 1 cup of buttermilk, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Using a fork or a wooden spoon, stir until it’s no longer crumbly and becomes a dough that you can gather together easily with your hands.
In a small bowl, combine the sliced rhubarb and remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Stir to combine.
Divide the dough into two and pat the first half into the prepared pan and pat down so it’s uniformly covering the bottom of the dish. Turn the rhubarb mixture out onto the top and spread evenly. It will be pretty heaped up–that’s okay. Take the second round of dough and pat it out into a rough circle on a clean work surface. Cover the rhubarb with the second round of dough as best you can (the top needn’t look perfect like a pie — it’s a rustic dish and you won’t have exactly enough dough to cover the rhubarb perfectly. If there are holes or open spots, no need to worry).
Using a pastry brush, brush the remaining 1 tablespoon of buttermilk across the top of the cake. Sprinkle the top with remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until the top is golden and the rhubarb is bubbly and quite soft. Allow cake to cool for 15 minutes after removing it from the oven. Slice in wedges, much like a scone. Serve warm with a generous dollop of whole-milk plain yogurt. As with many whole-grain baked goods, this cake is best enjoyed the day it’s made. If you do have leftovers, wrap well and keep at room temperature for up to 1 additional day.
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
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.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.