Whenever I see the word rhubarb, I hear it in my sweet paternal grandmother’s voice. I don’t have a distinct recollection of her making a rhubarb dish, but she was a prolific pie and candy maker, so it’s certainly possible. To be honest, my memories of eating rhubarb growing up are few, vague and neutral. Eating it as an adult, I’ve loved it immensely and can clearly remember each instance of enjoying it. In spite of this, I’ve hardly made anything with rhubarb myself. Its season seems to slip by quickly each spring, and by the time I think of transforming it into a dessert, it’s gone from the market. Not this year.
Craving a casual dessert, I decided on a whoopie pie style cookie: soft but sturdy handheld cakes with a creamy filling. After cooking it on the stovetop, I incorporated rhubarb into both the cake batter and the center of the cookies, and I paired it with lightly sweetened cream cheese to mirror its tangy flavor. Some vanilla bean and good splash of spiced, dark rum would offer warmth and softness to balance out the tartness. (And this match was marvelous; I say rhubarb and rum belong together!) Here’s how I made them.
FOR THE RHUBARB*:
- 4 large (14-15″) stalks rhubarb (14-15 ounces)
- 1/2 cup sugar
Rinse rhubarb and trim tough ends, so that each stalk is about 12-13″ long (11-12 ounces total, once trimmed). Cut each stem in half lengthwise, then cut horizontally in 1/2″ segments. You should have about 2.5 cups chopped rhubarb, loosely packed. Place it in a medium saucepan and toss with sugar. Place pan over medium heat. Once sizzling, turn heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 15 minutes. (Keep an eye on the pan; it’s known to spill over.) Rhubarb should be very soft and juicy at this point. If it’s not, keep cooking in 5 minute increments.
Remove pan from heat, remove lid, and let rhubarb sit in the open pan until it reaches room temperature or at least lukewarm. Measure out a full 1/2 cup of cooked rhubarb and place it in a bowl. Mash it with a fork until an even pulp is formed (this will only take a minute or two, since the cooked rhubarb is so tender); set aside. Place remaining rhubarb in a sieve or strainer over a bowl. Set aside.
FOR THE BATTER:
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 medium/large eggs
- seeds scraped from 1 large vanilla bean, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or powder
- 1.5 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons dark/spiced rum**
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheets with parchment; set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape insides of bowl with spatula, add the vanilla bean, and beat until evenly dispersed. Over the butter mixture, sift the flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix until an even batter is formed, scraping sides of bowl as needed. Add the rum and beat until thoroughly incorporated.
Scoop batter by the heaping tablespoon onto lined cookie sheets, keeping 2″ of space between dollops. You should have about 32-34 cookies. Bake 10 minutes, or until very edges of cookies are beginning to look toasty, tops are dry to the touch, and bottoms are golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely on baking sheets. They will flatten as they cool. If not filling the same day, store covered up to 24 hours.
FOR THE FILLING & ASSEMBLY:
- 12 ounces cream cheese, softened well
- 1/3 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for serving (optional)
- scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon dark/spiced rum
- strained rhubarb from above (discard its juice/syrup or use as you wish)
Beat cream cheese until smooth and soft. Sift the powdered sugar and salt over it. Beat until smooth, stopping to scrape bowl with spatula. Add the rum and beat until incorporated. (Note: This mixture is intentionally not too sweet, as the cookies and rhubarb are already sweetened. This recipe will likely leave you with a small amount of extra filling; it’s dreamy on toast or used as frosting.) Store filling covered in the fridge until ready to assemble the cookies (up to 24 hours).
To assemble, turn half of the cookies over and top with a rounded tablespoon of cream cheese filling. Add a scant teaspoon of the strained rhubarb (see note below). If you want the rhubarb to show/ooze from the sides of the cookie sandwiches, spread filling gently to the edges with the back of a spoon. Top with a remaining cookie, right side up, and press down gently. If desired, sprinkle with sifted powdered sugar, and serve in paper cupcake liners. Rhubarb rum cakes are best when assembled just before eaten, but you can keep them covered and chilled, eating within 12 hours. The sprinkling of powdered sugar and the rhubarb will soak into the cookies after much longer than that, but they’ll still taste great up to 48 hours.
Creamy, tangy, and warm in flavor, these whoopie pie style cookies offer vibrancy both to the palate and to the eye. The tartness of the rhubarb, the richness of the filling, and the kick of the rum together make for an utterly tasty trio. Hearty and decadent, a rhubarb rum sandwich cake is perfect as a stand alone dessert or snack. And whether or not grandma would have made these, I trust she would applaud after her first bite. After all, a sweet, scrumptious, seasonal treat like this is practically irresistible.
Maybe next time… I wanted to let the rhubarb, vanilla and rum shine without distraction in this recipe, but I’m sure brown sugar in place of white, and/or the addition of some cinnamon or other sweet spices would likely taste wondrous alongside them. For do-aheads, as I mentioned above, feel free to make the cookies up to 24 hours in advance, as well as the cream cheese filling. But I find it best to cook the rhubarb the day of, and assemble the sandwiches as close to eating as possible.
*This recipe makes just enough rhubarb filling for the batter and the small dollops sandwiched between the cookies. I kept the amount of rhubarb filling on the small side because there’s already a distinct rhubarb flavor from the rhubarb in the cakes. But if you are like me and find yourself involuntarily chanting “more rhubarb!”, feel free to cook more rhubarb by multiplying its part of the above recipe by 1.5 or 2. Pile on as much of it as filling as you wish; just be sure to keep the amount of mashed rhubarb in the batter recipe the same (1/2 cup), and be ready for lusciously oozing cookie-wiches.
**I have special place in my heart for Sailor Jerry rum for baking. It’s flavorful, warm, and vanilla-y with a kick. If you don’t want to use alcohol, skip it in the filling, and trade it for milk or a not-too-sweet juice in the batter.
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