Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Not So Sweet (Raspberry rhubarb crumble)

Spring is the perfect season for rhubarb, among the first plants we can harvest, growing outdoors from April until September. Greenhouse agriculture also allows rhubarb production year-round, so one never needs to go without. As a child I was as obsessed with rhubarb pie as I was with all baked goods (an obsession that remains), and confused to learn that the sweet, ruby-red filling was born of a bitter vegetable related to celery. Now that I have a more adult palate, rhubarb proves a wonderful option for making desserts that celebrate that happy zone of satisfying one's sweet tooth without being so cloying they induce a toothache. These individual raspberry rhubarb crumbles deliver sweet and tart in just the right measure.

For the not-so-sweet-tooth

"Why is rhubarb prepared as a fruit?" was the first question I wanted to answer, but I found no incontrovertible proof. Instead, I rely on heuristics and propose the answer is because it's so sour. Since rhubarb proved unpalatable for most without the addition of sugar, sweet preparations became de rigueur. The most common pairing for rhubarb is strawberry rhubarb, though it seems rhubarb purists find this an "unhappy marriage." Keeping that in mind, I chose raspberries, instead. While strawberries are more simply pure sweet, raspberries have a muskier, edgier flavor that I think makes the perfect pairing.

I will go down with this ship
With the filling decided, the next question was the manner of topping, which also led me to probe the mystery of the difference between cobbler, crumble, crisp, and buckle. All of these are fruit desserts featuring a somewhat homely baked topping and their subtle differences may be difficult for one to at first puzzle out. Buckle and cobbler are the most distinct: a buckle has an under-layer of cake, topped with fruit and streusel (crumbs of butter, flour, and sugar), and a cobbler is fruit filling topped with biscuits. Crisp and crumble are most similar to cobbler: fruit with topping. The distinction was once that a crisp consisted of fruit with an oatmeal topping, while crumble used simple streusel (sans oats), but the terms are now used interchangeably. 

Crisp, crumble, crunch? Be as confusing as you like
I maintain oats result in a crumblier texture, anyway, and so name this recipe a crumble. Whatever you call it, this dessert makes a perfect spring and summer companion, combining fruit and vegetable with less-than-the-usual amount of sugar for a treat that's tantalizingly tangy. A hint of orange and ginger round out the flavors, adding citrus brightness and spicy zing to the tart rhubarb and ripe raspberries. Crunchy, salty-sweet oat crumbles add further contrast, as does the cold ice cream, for a treat that's rich with contrast and nuance. With so much flavor going for it, you won't miss the extra sugar, and can eat dessert while consoling yourself that you're still getting your vegetables. 

Pictured: vegetables (?)
Raspberry rhubarb crumble

This versatile recipe can see you through the rhubarb season. Swap out the raspberries with strawberries, blackberries, or apples as the spring progresses through summer and autumn. Serves 4.

Butter for greasing ramekins

For the filling:
1 pound rhubarb, medium dice
8 ounces raspberries
3 tablespoons white sugar 
1/2 orange, freshly zested and juiced
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root

For the topping:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, diced
3/4 cup brown sugar, very lightly packed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup rolled oats

Vanilla bean ice cream, for serving

Preheat an oven to 375 F and grease 4 4-ounce ramekins, arranging them on a baking sheet. Set aside.

Maceration in action
Toss the rhubarb and raspberries with sugar, orange juice and zest and ginger, then divide among ramekins.

Divided we stand
Combine the dry ingredients with a food processor, pastry cutter, or your bare hands until it forms rough, pea-sized clumps. Sprinkle on top of the fruit mixture.

Bake until bubbling hot and golden-brown on top, about 30 minutes.

Serve warm with scoops of vanilla ice cream.


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