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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.