Dalai Mama Dishes

by Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

Dalai Mama Dishes

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

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Rhubarb Crumb Bars

Posted May 18, 2009
Find more about rhubarb , dalai mama , bars , dessert
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Still Life with Bleeding Heart, Salvation Army Plate, and Rhubarb Crumb Bar

If you don't have a rhubarb patch--as I never have until this very spring--you can buy rhubarb from a farmer's market, roadside stand, or supermarket.

Birdy is very scandalized by the fact that the leaves are poisonous.

Ben slicing rhubarb. (Note: this is a simulation of actual events.)

Tell me your mouth isn't watering. Unless you hate rhubarb, in which case you have my deepest sympathy.

Rhubarb crumb bars for breakfast! Ben's Buzz Lightyears really give new meaning to the term "short pajamas." I think they are a size 2T.

"No really, go ahead. You have it." "Okay." "Wait--but split it with me."

We had my favorite kind of weekend--what is known around here as "a real weekendy weekend." Somehow there was time enough for absolute lolling--late breakfasts, pajama-clad board games (Settlers of Catan is our new favorite), lackadaisical gardening (the kind where I pull weeds one-handed because I don't want to set down my beer), the pleasantly melancholy burying of the two Charlies (goldfish) who'd been in a freezer Ziploc since their respective December and February deaths, and B & B's Toenail Salon, at which the proprietors Dr. Ben and Dr. Birdy (pedicure PhDs?) will let you pick both your polish color and your style of application ("I can try to do it neat, or I can just do it scribbly-scrabbly and then clean it up with a Q-tip."). And time enough also for socializing decadently with our nearest and dearest: dinner parties and birthday parties and graduation parties, as if you could cram a lifetime's worth of friendship into two days, with tables full of potluck and buckets full of icy beer and packs of kids racing through the misty blue-green twilight like wild, delighted animals.

At some point we had friends over for hamburgers, which we grilled and ate under the nodding lilacs, and I decided that my thriving rhubarb plant could spare a few stalks for dessert. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that although this plant is technically in "my" "garden," my "growing" of it reminds me of the time that I used to "do" pregnant-mama yoga by popping in the DVD and lying back against a stack of pillows with a bowl of popcorn between my knees: a friend dug the rhubarb crown out of his garden last fall and brought it over in a bucket, then I dug a big hole and planted it too close to our house and Michael redug and replanted it. And since then I have very diligently ignored it, while it has proliferated wildly as it has been programmed by evolution to do.

That said, however, cooking with rhubarb is a different story. I am known alternately as "the rhubarb queen" and "the crumble queen," and rhubarb crumble is the dessert I am most famous for. I have written a great deal about my general love affair with rhubarb and even written up my crumble recipe. But on this particular fragrant Friday evening, with Dogwood petals floating down around us like molted angel wings, I had something different in mind--something that would be less spoonable and more pick-uppable. And so I Googled "rhubarb bars" and spliced together several homey-sounding and promising-looking desserts into one tweaked and excellent recipe. The bars are crunchy-bottomed with that deep flavor of oats caramelized in butter and brown sugar, and then they're topped with a jammy rhubarb layer and a few tender crumbs.  The rhubarb is, as it always is if you use enough sugar, both achingly sweet and jaw-crampingly tart, and the bars are so perfectly what I had in mind that I had to keep saying immodestly to our friends, "Aren't these so good?" And yes, they agreed happily, they are.

The only problem was that I hadn't predicted that, on first baking, they'd be quite so good--and so I hadn't photographed the process for this column. All I could do was take pictures of the kids eating leftovers for breakfast, and then pictures of them recreating the picking and the slicing of the rhubarb for me. "Isn't this illegal?" Ben wanted to know, his eyes glittering with rhubarby mischief while he sliced the stalks. So now I can't resist making a pretend siren sound right by his ear. "Rhubarb shakedown! Stalks up where we can see them!"

Rhubarb Crumb Bars
Serves 12
Active time: 20 minutes; total time 1 hour and 10 minutes.

On the first night we ate the bars with whipped cream, but leftovers were eaten bare and they were delicious this way too.

2 cups flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 cup butter (2 sticks; I use salted), sliced into small pieces
6 cups sliced rhubarb (about 2 pounds before trimming and cleaning)
1 1/2 cups white sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat the oven to 400 and heavily grease a lasagna-sized (11- by 7-inch) baking dish. I confess to using that unholy Pam baking spray--the kind that comes out of the can like foaming extraterrestrial phlegm but really keeps everything from sticking. (Their website boasts: "PAM Baking combines the unbeatable no-stick power of PAM with real flour." Don't settle for any of that off-brand fake flour!)

In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, and salt. Now add the pieces of butter and toss to coat them with the flour mixture, then use your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients. This is a messy but not unpleasant job: you'll be lifting handfuls of the mixture up out of the bowl, then gently letting it fall through your fingertips as you rub it together (I swear I'm going to make a youtube video of this one day). Eventually, you'll have a bowl full of pebbly crumbs, which is what you're going for.

Reserve a heaping cup of crumbs, and press the remaining crumbs into the baking dish, patting them down firmly to form a bottom crust. Spread the sliced rhubarb evenly over the crust. Now, here's a weird step that was in multiple recipes, and so I tried it, even though normally I would toss the sliced rhubarb with flour and sugar instead of doing anything so strange as creating a separate syrup: in a small saucepan combine the white sugar and cornstarch; stir in the water and cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it turns clear and thickens slightly--around five minutes. It will foam up and it will never get especially thick, but this seems to be okay. Remove it from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour it evenly over the rhubarb. Sprinkle with the reserved crumbs and bake the pan for ten minutes at 400 before turning the temperature down to 325 and baking for another 40 minutes. Serve in squares, warm or at room temperature, with or without whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Get a printable version of this recipe.

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Rhubarb Crumb Bars

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About Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, available online and in bookstores nationwide.

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