I am writing this on March 4th. The sun is out, albeit faintly. Nature is still spinning in subdued monchromatic hues: burnt orange, army green, gray. Spring seems almost close enough to reach, but not quite touched down.
Except in the rhubarb patch. In this small stretch of earth tucked against the greenhouse, there is a nub. It is a gnarled, wrinkled little thing—a Benjamin Button just born from the ground. But its folds are bright green and tender pink.
Before long it will start unfolding. It will let loose one tiny leaf and then another, and slowly they will grow broad. The stalks beneath them will gain strength. They will stretch up toward the sky and gather up the light, then send sugar back down to their roots. Another nub will spring up, and then another. By the time you read this, we’ll be cutting.
My plants came from my mother. Under her tutelage, I’ve been experimenting with rhubarb all my life. My top keeper recipe is a rhubarb custard pie from my friend Chelsea’s dad that uses an egg to thicken the fruit. There’s also a rhubarb crisp from my godmother Weez, and I make stewed rhubarb the way my mom does: cooked down with brown sugar and a splash of vanilla. Last year, I tried adding blackberries. It was a hit. I’ve tried strawberry rhubarb pie and rhubarb crumble muffins, and I haven’t met a rhubarb dessert I didn’t like.
Which brings me to the tarts. I first stumbled across them last summer in Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce. The tarts were instant stunners: tiny free-form crusts filled with ruby chunks of rhubarb. These treats were sweetened with brown sugar and livened up with orange zest. The recipe called for heavy cream, egg yolks, and cornmeal in the crust, and I made them right away.
They were not tricky. First, you make the compote—thicken up the rhubarb and cook the liquid off. The rhubarb gets soft and breaks down, but you save a few chunks to stir in after you turn off the heat, right at the end. While the compote cools, you make the crust. You whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, sea salt, a stick of butter, the cream, the egg yolks. The dough starts to come together and get thick. You grab it up with your hands, press it into a ball, and then divide it into 10. Slowly, using the heel of your palm, you work each ball out into a flat, round disc. You spoon a dollop of the compote into the center of each one, and then you fold up the edges. The tarts look rustic, precious.
You bake, the fruit bubbles. And when the plates are cleared and the dishes washed, you dig in.
RUSTIC RHUBARB TARTS
While these treats look fancy, there is nothing tricky about the recipe. And if you want to make these in the dead of winter, the compote is easy to can or freeze. The recipe has plenty of sugar, so if you want to can it, just put it up in a jar the same as you would any jam.
FOR THE COMPOTE:
- 2 pounds rhubarb, cut into ½ inch chunks
- 1 and ¼ cups dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
FOR THE DOUGH:
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 and ½ cups fine cornmeal
- ¹/³ cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
- 1 stick cold butter, cut into half-inch pieces
- ¹/³ cup heavy cream
- 2 egg yolks
1 . Put two thirds of the rhubarb, the brown sugar, and the orange zest into a medium-size, heavy-bottomed pot. Give everything a stir, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the fruit starts to break down. Uncover and turn the heat up to medium, then cook another 15 minutes, stirring very often to prevent burning. When the compote is ready, the fruit should be completely broken down and thick enough that a spoon leaves a trail at the bottom of the pan. Add the remaining rhubarb chunks and stir to combine. Immediately turn off the heat and leave the compote to cool. (You can make the compote up to a week in advance and store it in the fridge.)
2. Meanwhile, make the dough. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter until it forms pea-size chunks. Add the cream and the egg yolks and mix until combined. The dough will look crumbly but should form easily into a ball.
3. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Divide the ball into 10 pieces and roll each ball into a five-inch circle. Spoon ¼ cup of compote into the center of each circle. Fold the edges of the circle up to make a ruffled lip. Use a spatula to transfer the tarts to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until the edges of the dough are golden and the rhubarb is bubbling and thick. Serve warm or at room temperature. Vanilla ice cream makes a nice complement.