A recent invitation to join our neighbors, Bud and Billie Herman, for coffee at their home shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday resulted in the creation of this both fluffy and crisp, sweet and tart muffin that we served to them with freshly brewed coffee just yesterday in our home! During the course of our conversation that morning following Thanksgiving, bathed by the warm morning sun streaming through the window, I mentioned how expensive it had been to buy rhubarb for the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Fresh Rhubarb, Strawberry and Tarragon Sauce we had served for dessert on Thanksgiving… nearly $8.00/lb! You cannot imagine how delighted I was to discover that they had access to unlimited amounts of fresh rhubarb… and were offering that access on to us! Visions of rhubarb custard pie… rhubarb bars… rhubarb cake… danced through my head!
With wire basket and a sharp paring knife in hand Dayton and I set excitedly off on our mission: to collect as many crisp, colorful and hearty stalks as possible without looking greedy…!
Upon returning home we removed the leaves, all the while having the age-old discussion as to whether rhubarb is a fruit or a vegetable:
Out of curiosity I took a couple of minutes for internet research only to discover that rhubarb is usually considered to be a vegetable. It was decided, however, by a New York court in 1947 that since it was used as a fruit in the United States it was to be counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulation and taxation. Following that declaration it seems that there was a reduction in taxes paid! So, who truly knows what it all means, except the fact that rhubard is delicious! It also brings back many fond memories of childhood… Mom stirring a large kettle of glistening red stramberry and rhubarb jam. There was nothing better on hot buttered toast, the sweetness of the berries melding with the delightful bursts of crisp rhubarb tartness… A pan of fresh rhubarb bars just out of the oven, topped with a golden layer of fluffy meringue… Both Dayton and I remember breaking off stalks from the immense plants during our respective childhoods, his here in California and mine back in Minnesota, pulling back the stringy fibers, then sucking and chewing on the sour and tart inner flesh, savoring the “puckering” effect the juices always had on our mouths as well as the exquisitely sour taste filled with possibilites…!
Now that we had rhubarb we needed recipes… and what greater resource than my mom? I phoned her that evening, informing her of our good fortune and, for the next several days, emails streamed in from her with a plethora of rhubarb possibilities, some of which you may see here as the weeks and months are upon us!
A number of the recipes contain oleo as one of the ingredients, so it would seem that these are “tried and true” recipes that have been passed down through the generations, continuing to live on! For those of you unfamiliar with oleo, or oleomargarine as it was called more than 50 years ago, this product was created from vegetable oil in 1869 by a French chemist, Hippolyte Mege-Mouriea and used as an economical substitute for butter, increasing in popularity during World War II when butter was in short supply. When Oleo margarine came out it wasn’t even yellow, but white. Oleomargarine wasn’t allowed to be colored to look like butter in many areas because the dairy industry didn’t want it to be confused for butter. Instead, it came with a capsule of yellow food coloring that was to be broken and kneaded by hand into the margarine… Dayton remembers this being his responsibility during his childhood days on the ranch!
My decision was to bake a variation of the rhubarb muffin recipe and use buttermilk rather than soured milk. As I was gathering together the ingredients for the modified recipe, I was dismayed to discover that the last stick of infrequently used margarine, or oleomargarine, had been used! Realizing that butter could not be used as a substitute we chose to use Smart Balance, a tub of which was sitting in our fridge. The muffins were perfect and elicited rave reviews… from the baker, as well!
Buttermilk Rhubarb Muffins
Preheat the oven to 375°. Sift together and set to the side:
2 1/2 C flour
1 tsp soda
1/4 tsp salt
To the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle add:
1 C granulated sugar
3 T Smart Balance or margarine of choice
Beat until fluffy, then add:
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
Beat together until well incorporated. Add:
3/4 C buttermilk, room temperature
Baker’s Note: You may note that the batter appears to separate once the buttermilk has been added. No need to fear! Once the dry ingredients are added the batter becomes smooth and glossy.
the sifted dry ingredients
Mix until well incorporated, scraping the sides of the bowl to ensure complete blending. Add:
3 C chopped rhubarb, medium dice
Baker’s Note: Dice the rhubarb stalks as celery would be diced. Draw a sharp knife along the length of the stalk several times, dending on the size of the stalk and the desired dice-size. Cross-wise cut the strips accordingly:
With the mixer on low speed gently distribute the rhubarb throughout the batter. Prepare the muffin tin(s) by spraying the cups with a cooking spray. We like to use butter-flavored Pam.
Divide the batter evenly among 16 of the cups.
Baker’s Note: Should you chose to bake a few less to make an even dozen or a few more to make 2 dozen to completely fill a pan simply adjust the recipe accordingly either way.
1/2 – 3/4 C walnuts
Distribute and sprinkle the chopped nuts evenly over the batter, gently pressing them partially into the batter. Generously sprinkle each with:
turbinado (raw) sugar
Bake in the preheated 375° oven for 20 – 25 minutes. The muffins will be light in color on top so do not be tempted to overbake them! Allow them to rest in the pan for 10 minutes before gently removing them. Check to see that the edges are loose… they will pop right out if treated with love!
Serve these glorious muffins with a cup of your perfectly brewed favorite tea or a steaming mug of freshly ground coffee… and they are perfect with a generous schmear of creamery butter! The delightful crunch of the sugary topping laced with nuttiness marries perfectly with the moist sweetness of the crumb and the delightful rhubarb “bursts” that stimulate and exquisitely satisfy one’s tastebuds make this simple little muffin a delightful pleasure… Bon Appetit!
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