I often think about what it must have been like to grow up in my dad’s house when he was a kid. By all accounts, there were always homemade baked goods on the counter. Always. His grandmother, a Hungarian immigrant and known to everyone as Gram, lived with him growing up and, well, although I know she had a bedroom and frequented other rooms in the house, I think she pretty much spent most of her time in the kitchen, baking and cooking and baking some more
From what I hear, there were cheese pockets and coffeecakes (“Oh, we were never without coffeecake,” my grandmother has told me) and muhn cookies and pies. Seeing as Gram grew up sleeping on a dirt floor in Hungary and made her way here at 13, formal “recipes” weren’t really part of her vocabulary. Over time, she worked out her own recipes, but more than anything she developed a feel for how recipes worked. She could throw together a pie or dessert without really thinking about it.
I recently came across a stack of Gram’s old recipes, written in barely legible chicken scratch, a Yiddish/Hungarian/English hybrid, most of it phonetic. Some day I will make and post those recipes — promise — but I need to work out the ingredients and measurements and, well, I’ve been a little busy. You know, planning a wedding and stuff.
Though my Hungarian great grandmother surely never used rhubarb in her cooking — and I know the words “sponge pudding” never grazed her lips — this rhubarb sponge pudding is the sort of “thrown together” dessert I picture someone like her baking. It’s almost effortless, and you can have it together and in the oven while you make dinner on a lazy Sunday. With recipes like this in my arsenal, I just may have baked goods lining my counter constantly too.
Edited to add: I stand corrected! My aunt has informed me that Gram did, in fact, cook with rhubarb and made a wonderful strawberry rhubarb pie. Who knew!
Rhubarb Sponge Pudding
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2007
Note: This calls for rhubarb only, but I had a handful of strawberries in the refrigerator and threw them in as well. They were a wonderful addition. Also, for a flavor twist, feel free to substitute chambord or framboise for the water.
1 1/3 pounds rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths (about 5 cups)
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons water
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs
6 1/2 tablespoons whole milk
1-2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
Preheat oven to 375F. Butter a 11″x7″x2″ baking dish. Place the rhubarb pieces in the baking dish. Split the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape the seeds into the baking dish; discard the pod. Sprinkle the brown sugar and water over the rhubarb and toss gently so the vanilla bean seeds and sugar are evenly distributed.
In a small bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, beat together the sugar and butter with an electric mixer until the mixture is pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in the flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with the milk in 2 additions, mixing just to blend after each addition. Spoon the batter over the rhubarb, smoothing the top with a spatula to cover. Sprinkle the top evenly with turbinado sugar.
Bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes. Cool at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.
Yield: 8 servings