Once my maitre d’ trail was complete, I found my way back to the kitchen where my refrigerator was overflowing with greenmarket treasures. The crimson celery-like stalks of rhubarb beckoned.
Now, rhubarb and I don’t have much history. I’m not a fan of cooked berries unless they’re blue or come from a bog, so classic strawberry rhubarb pie, and, by association, rhubarb on its own, and I aren’t the best of friends. We don’t dislike each other; we just don’t run in the same circles.
We tried once to hang out – last year when I clipped a Saveur article and drooled over an upside down cake where rhubarb played the starring role. I read the reviews but never made it to the theater of my oven to see diva rhubarb on stage. She waited for me in the cold backstage of my fridge until she went sad and limp. This year, though, I made it my business to rekindle (or is it kindle?) a friendship. So, I got chopping, which I realize is where this little anthropomorphism should probably cease.
I cooked down the rhubarb in a few generous pats of butter and a pile of sugar, more mountain than molehill. I looked for caramelization as the recipe suggested, but found only stringy mush in a pool of buttery syrup, more lake than puddle. With a combination of dismay (the rhubarb was, um, interesting looking) and intrigue (but its sweet and tart flavor was swoon-worthy), I persevered. I prepared a cake batter, covered the mess of rhubarb, slid the pan into the oven, and then pulled it out.
The flip was a bit less than successful, so there’s no photo of a cake tinged pink. And with rhubarb mush, there was definitely no chance of a lovely cake covered in still discernable rhubarb pieces, flecked with crunchy caramelization. It tasted good enough, but when half of the cake remained after I brought it to family meal at the restaurant, I decided the recipe wasn’t worth a second try.
Nonetheless, it left me with a glimmer of hope. The next day, I went back to the market, brought home even more rhubarb, and sweated it out. Literally. It was one of those days when I had to close all of my window shades at high noon to keep the temperature in my apartment manageable even before I fired up the oven. And once the oven began its steady preheating climb, I had to turn on the air conditioning. But the rhubarb made me do it, and so do it I did.
My plan: muffins. While the oven was preheating, I made rhubarb compote. I diced the rhubarb and threw in some thyme…
…then loaded it up with sugar and lemon…
…and melted it down…
… to a silky compote. Looks a little like cranberry applesauce, no?
I threw together the cake batter I had used earlier, reducing the sugar and adding thyme to keep the muffins more breakfast than dessert. I scooped the batter into muffin tins, dotted with compote, and added another light blanket of batter.
Into the oven, and out of that oven, and off went the oven, and on stayed the air conditioning.
Rhubarb thyme muffins
This recipe is inspired by a rhubarb upside-down cake in last year’s Saveur. I modified the caramelized rhubarb (which turned into mush, for me at least) into a lush not-too-sweet, still-somewhat-tart compote to which I added thyme based on this recipe. I used thyme because 1) I had it and 2) to keep this muffins out of cupcake territory. You’ll have about 1/2 – 3/4 cup extra compote – it’s fabulous spooned over Greek yogurt with a few clusters of granola. I also added some raw rhubarb to the batter – it cooks up nicely and gives some extra texture and a burst of tartness to the muffins. If I do try to make another rhubarb upside-down cake (and I have another pound-plus of stalks in my fridge), I’m going to go with raw rhubarb on the bottom, à la Melissa Clark’s recipe (read her notes here).
You’ll need a total of 1 1/4 pounds of rhubarb to yield 4 cups chopped.
Makes 16 muffins
For the compote:
– 3 C diced rhubarb
– 1/2 C sugar
– 1/4 t dried thyme
– 1 lemon for zest and juice
– pinch salt
For the muffin batter:
– 2 C flour
– 1 C sugar
– 4 eggs
– 1 C canola oil
– 2 t baking powder
– 1 t salt
– 1 t vanilla
– 1 C diced rhubarb
Prep. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease a muffin pan.
Simmer. Stir together the compote ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium-high and continue to simmer until the rhubarb cooks down to the consistency of applesauce, about 15 minutes. Let cool.
Mix. Meanwhile, mix together the batter ingredients. You can mix this all by hand in less time than it takes to drag your stand mixer out of the cabinet.
Arrange. Fill each muffin cup with a scant 1/4 cup of batter. Top with 2 teaspoons of compote and an additional tablespoon of batter per muffin cup.
Bake. Bake the muffins for 20 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.