Rhubarb-Berry Crunch

For at least three weeks, I had been watching all the markets I shop, waiting and hoping to see fresh stalks of spring rhubarb. It doesn’t seem to be a very popular item here in the South, or at least not as much as in my old stomping grounds in upstate N.Y., and there’s good reason—the winter soil is too warm in North Carolina. Rhubarb thrives in areas that have very cold winters, making it a common plant in the snow belt. Some folks around here have never even had the pleasure of tasting it.

When I was young, I remember my Gram always had rhubarb growing near a small outbuilding shed behind her house, and plenty of it. To find it locally, however, takes patience. When I do see it here, it is usually a small quantity, quite expensive, and often placed in one of the obscure sections of the refrigerated case, near the other “weird” produce items (think horseradish root and kohlrabi). I had even checked at the local farmer’s market, to no avail. One grocery produce manager, when asked about the expected arrival of rhubarb, looked puzzled and asked, “what does it look like?”

I always look forward to seeing these red beauties in the spring!

By the time rhubarb makes it to the supermarket, the leaves have been stripped, and just as well—they are loaded with oxalic acid, so they are inedible and even toxic. The stems, which range in color from bright red to pink to pale green, look like smooth celery stalks and they are equally crisp in texture. I am hard-pressed to describe the flavor of rhubarb other than to say that it is tart, maybe like a cross between a green apple and a lemon. Although technically a vegetable that can be eaten raw, most people cook rhubarb with sugar and use it as a fruit, especially in pies, crumbles, jams and preserves.

My Gram made a delicious rhubarb sauce that was as delicious to me as any applesauce, and I remember asking for it as a topping on vanilla ice cream. In the summer of 2011, on my last visit with my grandmother, who had relocated to Montana to be near my aunt, we enjoyed this dessert together. Lucky for me, my aunt happily shared her recipe for this yummy dessert, which is very adaptable to include other fruits, especially strawberry. Aunt Joy and I were reminiscing the other day about the times I visited her house when I was young, and she made memorable, mouthwatering strawberry-rhubarb jam. It’s a fantastic flavor combination!

Just a couple of days before my mandoline accident, when I decided to shave that extra 1/8” off the end of my finger, I had been overjoyed to finally find fresh rhubarb in one of the markets I shop. My usual time in the kitchen has been abbreviated by my injury (which is driving me crazy, if you want to know the truth), but I have a wonderful and willing husband, Les, who has been my “hands” for some the kitchen tasks that are tricky for me right now. I won’t say that it has all been smooth sailing (I am a bit of a bossy britches), but we are getting better at working together to make some great food, including this fabulous dessert. Les did all the washing and cutting of fresh ingredients, and I did more of the mixing.

The filling is perfectly cooked and slightly sticky, and the oat topping is crunchy in all the right places. Served warm with vanilla ice cream, this is springtime heaven for my taste buds!

This delicious crunch was Les’s first-ever taste of rhubarb, so I leaned a little heavier on the strawberry than I otherwise would. I expected that his sweet tooth might reject the tartness of rhubarb on its own, but he really enjoys the flavor, so next time, I will go all-in with rhubarb. Assuming, of course, I can find it. 😊


Filling Ingredients

1 1/2 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and diced

1 1/2 cups strawberries, cleaned and halved

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground ginger


Topping Ingredients

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes)

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 stick (8 Tbsp.) salted cold butter

Pinch of kosher salt


*Notes

My aunt’s original recipe calls for 1 cup sugar, but I split the amount between regular and brown sugars. I use brown sugar in strawberry shortcake and love the rich, warm flavor. Use all regular sugar if you prefer.

I like to use some portion of whole wheat flour in all my baked goods, but if you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, increase the amount of all-purpose to 3/4 cup.


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center of oven.
  2. Toss together rhubarb, sugar, flour and ginger transfer into a buttered 8 x 8 glass baking dish.
  3. Use a pastry blender or pulse with food processor to combine flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter until mixture appears as crumbs. Toss or lightly pulse with oats just to combine.
  4. Spread oat topping over rhubarb filling. Sprinkle the top with a pinch of kosher salt.
  5. Bake at 350° for about 40 minutes, until oat topping is browned and crunchy, and filling is bubbling up around it.
  6. Serve warm, perhaps with vanilla ice cream. Store leftovers in the refrigerator, and reheat for additional servings.
I especially loved serving this in my Gram’s dainty, vintage dishes. Aunt Joy sent these to me after Gram passed away.


Cherry Amaretto Upside-down Skillet Cake

A great meal deserves a sweet, delicious ending, and this one showcases the plump and luscious dark red cherries that were everywhere this summer. The cake is moist and flavorful, rich with buttermilk, almond flour, eggs and real butter, and the buttery brown sugar topping is a little on the boozy side, plus the deep, dark sweet cherries. And the whole thing is elegantly draped with a dollop of amaretto-spiked whipped cream.

YUM!

If you aren’t wild about cherries (or maybe you aren’t wild about knocking out the pits), substitute fresh peaches, plums, nectarines, blackberries—well, I think you get the idea. But these cherries!

Fresh and sweet dark cherries

To tackle the unenviable job of pitting the cherries, I purchased a nifty device that gets the job done, six cherries at a time! If you’ve ever tried pitting cherries without a tool, you know that it cannot be done without making a huge mess. In previous attempts, I’ve balanced the cherries—one at a time, of course—on the neck of an empty wine bottle, then held the cherry while shoving the end of a chopstick through it. It left holes in the cherries, the pits inside the bottle, and red juice stains all over everything else in the room, including me. It’s the reason that, for the most part, I’ve relied on frozen cherries whenever I wanted to make a cherry dessert. I adore fresh cherries, but I’d only bought them to snack on, and only when I was flying solo because the whole spitting-out-the-pits part conjured memories of the 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick. There’s just no way to do it gracefully.

Suffice to say, this $15 tool has changed the game for me. After rinsing the cherries and pulling off the stems, I loaded them into the tray and pressed the top down. Boom!

And just like that, the pits are pushed out the bottom and into a receptacle, leaving the cherries intact but devoid of pits. I finished the entire bowlful in about 8 minutes. I’m not prone to give kudos for “uni-task” tools, but this one really took the pain out of what would otherwise make me choose a different dessert. Besides, as I reminded my husband, Les, this will also come in handy when I need to pit whole olives (which I’ve never tried but now I can).

After the cherries were pitted, I got busy making the topping, which goes into the skillet first. This part of the recipe felt familiar because I’ve made a similar upside-down skillet cake with peaches. I start by melting butter with brown sugar, then adding amaretto to the mix for a subtle almond flavor that echoes what will be going on later in the cake batter. The cake is easy to make, too—cream together the sugar and butter, add the eggs and flavor enhancers, and then alternate the dry ingredients with buttermilk until it’s ready to spread over the topping. The rest of the delicious magic happens in the oven.

It’s best to invert the cake onto a plate while it’s still warm, but be careful handling the hot skillet!

This cake has a dense, but not heavy texture, and the warm almond flavor permeates every layer while the soft, juicy cherries satisfy the sweet tooth. It keeps well, too, which is always a bonus in our empty nest household. As odd as it may sound, Les and I found that we enjoyed this cake even more a couple days after I baked it—ice-cold, straight from the refrigerator. The cake part remained moist (thank you, buttermilk!), and the cherry flavor was more pronounced.

Leftovers. The cake remained moist in the fridge, and the deep cherry color seeped further into the cake. This is a delicious dessert for late summer!

Ready to make it?


Ingredients

4 Tbsp. butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup cane sugar

1.5 oz. amaretto* (see notes)

About 3 cups pitted fresh dark cherries

1 cup all-purpose flour*

3/4 cup almond flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

3/4 cup cane sugar

1 stick unsalted butter, softened but not melted

2 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. almond extract

1 Tbsp. amaretto (optional)*

1 cup buttermilk*

Whipped cream for serving, if desired


*Notes

Amaretto is an Italian, almond-based liqueur. It is lower proof than whiskey or vodka, slightly sweet and plays very nicely with cherries. If you avoid alcohol, you can get close to this flavor with almond extract. Drizzle 1 teaspoon over the cherry mixture and increase to 2 teaspoons in the cake. Real almond extract, by the way, also usually contains alcohol as a suspension for the almond flavor, but the amount will be minimal.

Remember the rule for measuring flour? In baked goods such as this, using the correct amount will really make a difference. Dipping your measuring cup straight into the flour container is a sure-fire way to have a dry and crumbly cake. I trust a kitchen scale for most of my baking, but if you don’t have one, follow the simple “fluff, sprinkle, level” method—fluff the flour with a whisk or fork, sprinkle it over the dry measuring cup to overflowing, level it off with the back of a knife.

Don’t be tempted to substitute regular milk for the buttermilk in this recipe. The acidity in the buttermilk will lend a subtle tanginess to the cake, and it also reacts with the baking powder and soda for leavening.


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375°.
  2. Place a 10” cast iron skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter, then add the brown sugar and cook until the sugar is dissolved, and the mixture appears lightly foamy.
  3. Pour in the amaretto and swirl gently to evenly distribute throughout the butter and sugar mixture. Remove from heat and arrange the cherries close together over the mixture.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, almond flour, baking powder, soda, salt and cinnamon.
  5. In a mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until it’s evenly combined and fluffy. Add one egg and beat until smooth, repeat with the second egg. Then, beat in vanilla and almond extracts, plus additional amaretto, if desired.
  6. Beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture, blending only until dry ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Beat in half the buttermilk until smooth. Repeat with flour and buttermilk, then the remaining flour.
  7. Pour the batter evenly over the cherries in the skillet. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula to evenly distribute the thick batter.
  8. Slide the skillet into the oven and bake about 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  9. Allow cake to cool at least 15 minutes before inverting it to a large serving platter. To do this successfully, first slide a butter knife around the edges of the cake, to loosen any areas where it might be sticking. Center the plate, face-side down, over the skillet, then carefully hold the skillet and plate together and turn them over. I’ve found this to be easy, as long as you don’t allow the cake to cool too long. If it sticks too much to release, turn the pan right side up again and briefly heat it over a low burner. This will melt and soften the butter again for easier release.

Allow the cake to cool completely. Cut into wedges and serve with a dollop of freshly whipped cream (spike with amaretto, if you wish).

Store leftovers in the fridge, covered with foil or plastic wrap.

This recipe makes about 8 servings, and a dollop of fresh whipped cream is a perfect topper.

Want to print this dessert recipe?