Rhubarb—Rooted in History, Sweetened with Sugar

This past week I spent a good amount of time traveling the byways of Central Pennsylvania as I enjoyed a week of vacation in pursuit of one of my many interests—fly fishing.

I fished a few days in the northern tier of the Commonwealth on the Pine Creek and its tributaries, Slate Run, Little Pine, and Cedar Run. During the latter part of the week, Scott Bubb, the Winemaker at Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and I whiled away the warm spring days fishing the famous Penns Creek.

Throughout my travels to and from various fishing locations, I could not but notice the proliferation of rhubarb tucked at the edge of almost every garden that I passed. In fact, I would venture to guess that rhubarb may be one of the most popular garden plants in Pennsylvania. I myself have a large plot of it in the corner of the kitchen garden at Cow Hill Cottage.

Rhubarb has a storied history. It’s an actual lesson in human history itself within the context of mythology, natural healing, and culinary culture. First documented as a medicinal plant in China as early as 2700 BC with the root used as a laxative, it traveled via the silk road into Europe and eventually to the British Isles. Also, one cannot exclude from this discussion the view of the early Persian Culture that the human race itself sprung from the lowly rhubarb seed.

From a culinary point of view, rhubarb has a long tradition of being the basis for many a sweet dish, with Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Stewed Rhubarb being two of the most common. But from an Eastern European point of view, it was often paired with meats and other savory dishes. In fact, the tradition of its use in sweet desserts is so ingrained in the American culture that the United States changed rhubarb’s classification from a vegetable to a fruit in the late 1940s.

At Stonefly Café, we feature local rhubarb as a unique wine produced by Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and it’s the basis for our Rhubarb House Churned Ice Cream and Rhubarb Cream Brulé.

For those of you who want to add this storied perennial to your garden, I give you the following basic cultivation and harvest tips:

What to plant. Choose a variety that suits your climate. Ask a knowledgeable person at your local garden center or greenhouse for the best local varieties. Or, follow the long-held tradition of sharing planting materials, and ask a neighbor or fellow gardener to allow you to have a start from their plot.

When to plant. You can plant rhubarb crowns in early spring or in the fall when the roots are dormant.

Where to plant. Rhubarb grows best in climates where the ground freezes during the winter. It likes full sun and well-drained soil. Allow adequate room when planting as rhubarb plants can measure up to 4 feet wide and tall.

How to plant. Prepare a large hole, about the size of a bushel basket, and fill almost to the top with rich compost or rotted manure. Place the crown in the center and cover with 1 to 2 inches of manure and compost. Mulch with 2 inches thick of straw, compost, or shredded bark.

How to maintain. Give the plants lots of water, as this is key to producing tender stalks. Apply a generous layer of manure around the plants annually to assure a bountiful harvest, and maintain a good mulch around the base. Dig and split the rhubarb roots every five or so years while the plants are dormant in early spring or fall.

How to harvest. Give rhubarb one growing season to establish, and then begin harvesting in the second year. Once the stalks are 12 to 18 inches long, cut at the base. Leave at least half the stalks on the plant each time so they continue to add growth. The typical harvest period is 8 to 10 weeks from April through June.

My favorite rhubarb cake recipe follows, along with several tempting toppings. What’s your favorite rhubarb recipe?

Rhubarb Cake

Cake:

2 tsp Soft Butter

1 Cup Sugar

1 Egg

2 Cup Flour

1 tsp Baking Powder

½ tsp Baking Soda

½ tsp Salt

1 Cup Buttermilk

2 Cup Rough Chop Rhubarb

Streusel Topping:

¼ Cup Flour

¼  Cup Sugar

2 tbsp Melted Butter

Vanilla Sauce:

½ Cup Butter

¾ Cup Sugar

½ Cup Evaporated Milk

1 tsp Vanilla Extract

Method, Cake:
Cream Butter and Sugar

Beat in the Egg

Add remainder of dry cake ingredients

Add the Buttermilk

Fold in the chopped Rhubarb

Fill a well-greased 9-inch square cake pan.

Method, Streusel:
Combine streusel topping ingredients and sprinkle over cake batter in pan.


Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 to 45 minutes.

Method, Vanilla Sauce:
Combine the Butter, Sugar, and Evaporated Milk and bring to a boil, cooking and stirring 2 to 3 minutes until thick.

Remove from heat and stir in the Vanilla Extract.

Serve cake with Vanilla Sauce on the side.

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