Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

I don’t eat rhubarb though I’m sure one day I will.  Kind of like “when I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.”  Or as Holly Golightly said about diamonds,”It’s tacky to wear diamonds before you’re 40; and even that’s risky … they only look good on the really old girls … wrinkles and bones, white hair and diamonds.  I can’t wait.”  My sentiments exactly.   With diamond tiaras and crowns of rhubarb in my stars, I look forward to being a woman of a certain age.

My Great-Grandma Sorensen grew rhubarb outside the back door just off the kitchen of her home in Harlan, Iowa.  She loved it, especially with strawberry.  Each summer, she would stock her pantry with strawberry rhubarb jam and cover her windowsill with strawberry rhubarb pies.  My Great-Grandpa had no objections.  For her, strawberry rhubarb was the most winning combination.  For him, he was the biggest winner.  This year, in memory of her, I’m going to pick up where she left off.

Though the distance between what used to be Great-Grandma Inez’s house in Harlan and my in-laws’ in Buckinghamshire is 4,219 miles, there is one thing about these places that’s exactly the same.  The summer rhubarb.  At the far end of my in-laws’ English garden, past the flowerbeds and my daughter, the Weekend Primrose Fairy, who conjures magic with camellias for wounded ladybugs. . . beyond the bramley apple tree laden with blossom that will (fingers crossed) bring us a bumper crop this September. . . after the greenhouse sheltering sweet peas and cherry tomatoes . . . next to the squash, sorrel, and kale. . . is a row of regal scarlet rhubarb.  This weekend I made several crumbles.  Below is the recipe.  I hope you enjoy it.  Actually, I hope my Great-Grandma would have enjoyed it.




garden bramley apple tree

best blossom rhubarb in the garden rhubarb growing


fruit filling:

2 stalks of rhubarb, chopped into 1 1/2 – 2 inch pieces

1 1/2 cups strawberries, washed, hulled, and halved

1 teaspoon crystallized ginger, chopped

3 tablespoons brown sugar

crumble topping:

1/3 cup Demerara sugar

1 cup oatmeal

1/4 cup flour

4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes

a pinch of salt


Preheat oven to Gas 5/375ºF/190ºC.

Place the rhubarb and strawberry pieces in a small ceramic baking dish.  Add the brown sugar and crystallized ginger.  Gently stir to mix.

In a medium sized bowl, combine the butter, flour, oatmeal, sugar, and salt.  Rub with your fingertips until it forms a coarse meal.

Sprinkle the topping over the fruit and bake for an hour or until the crumble is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling.

Serve with creme fraiche, Greek yogurt, ice cream or whatever you like.  And to eat it like my Great-Grandma did, be sure to have it with a game of Scrabble.

windowsill crumble


Why is Life Worth Living? (A Cream-Filled Cupcake Recipe)

I watch this scene from Manhattan whenever I want to be reminded of all the beauty life has to offer.  The simple pleasures–Groucho Marx, the Jupiter Symphony, the crabs at Sam Wo’s.  The exquisite pains–Swedish movies, Marlon Brando, Flaubert.  And while I love Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, were it my list, I think I’d substitute it with Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk.  I’d also trade Cézanne’s apples and pears for Matisse’s Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book, Frank Sinatra for Hoagy Carmichael, Tracy’s face for my daughter’s, and I’d have to add my Grandma Helen’s cream-filled chocolate cupcakes.

These cupcakes are a perennial family favorite.  They have made an appearance at almost every birthday party and Fourth of July barbecue my life entire.  I have made one adjustment to my Grandmother’s recipe.  Taking my cues from The Barefoot Contessa, I use fresh hot coffee instead of hot water.  I find this adds depth and intensity and makes what is already an amazing cupcake that much more so.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I always have.

chocolate cupcakes

 Grandma Helen’s Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes


2 ½ cups flour

2 cups sugar

5 heaping tbsp cocoa

¼ t. salt

2 eggs

1 t. vanilla

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk

2 t. baking soda

1 cup strong hot coffee


Mix ingredients together except for the baking soda and hot coffee.  Dissolve soda in hot coffee then add to batter and gently stir to mix.  Don’t be alarmed by how liquidy the mixture is.  This is why the cakes are so moist.  Fill cupcake holders ¾ full. Bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 18-20 minutes.



 ½ cup caster or granulated sugar

½ cup milk

2/3 cup Crisco

¼ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp Water

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup powdered sugar


Mix caster sugar, Crisco, water, milk, salt, and vanilla together.  Beat for 5 minutes.  Then add powdered sugar.  After cupcakes have cooked, use a pastry tube to squeeze the cream filling into each cake.  Be careful not to fill too much or the cakes will crack.  Frost with chocolate frosting.


6 oz. dark chocolate (at least 80% cocoa)

1/2 lb unsalted butter

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 c powdered sugar

1 egg yolk

1 tbsp instant coffee dissolved in a tsp of hot water

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and set aside until room temperature.  Beat the butter with an electric mixer in a large bowl until light and fluffy.  Add the yolk and vanilla and continue mixing for a few more minutes.  Gradually beat in the sugar.  Lastly, incorporate the melted chocolate and instant coffee.

More to Loave

Yeast beckons my grandmother’s command.  For as long as I have lived, she has been queen of sweet breads and rolls of any kind.  This skill coupled with her generosity has always made her the most popular woman at church.  Sadly, no one else in the family inherited her gift.  Sure others try and occasionally succeed, but grandma Helen is in a class all her own.  Once I rang her for a tea ring recipe after she’d gone to bed early.  In the darkness of her bedroom, she rattled off the recipe to me by heart before hanging up and going straight back to sleep.

All this said, I feel like I’ve been letting down the side.  I bake and cook more than anyone in my family and still I live in fear of yeast recipes.  I hide from them like they’re the boogie man.  I refuse to make them out of fear of failure.  Well not anymore.

Last night, I made bread for the first time in almost ten years.  Sure I’ve baked the odd batch of sweet rolls here and there, but it’s been an absolute age since I attempted baguettes or pains rustiques.

The recipe I used was Mireille Guiliano’s from her book “French Women Don’t Get Fat.”  Circa 2004, I was given the book as gift and in it were some wonderful recipes.  For a while, I baked her baguettes every weekend.  The link to her recipe is here.

My bread was good.  It tasted great, had a fantastic crust, and sounded hollow when tapped on the bottom.  It even had nice bubbles from pockets of air that you can see in the cross sections.  However, it looked nothing like a baguette.  No fault of Mireille’s.  I just need to practice my shaping technique.

Tonight I gave myself a mulligan.  I redid the experiment but changed a few things.  I made the same dough recipe, but shaped and baked it differently.  Instead of several baguettes, I made two large oval shapes.  Because they were bigger, I increased my baking time.  25 minutes at 450ºF/Gas 8/ 230ºC and 20 minutes at 400ºF/Gas 6/200ºC.  I lightly oiled the baking trays and sprinkled them with cornmeal before putting the loaves on to rise a second time.  Then before baking, I sprinkled one loaf with cornmeal and brushed the other with milk before sprinkling it with cornmeal.  As you’ll see from the pictures, the milk made no difference.

James Beard once said, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”  And as my mama would say, “I’ll stop him when he’s wrong.”

proofing 2nd rise 1st loaf 1st loaf cross section both loaves 2nd loaf cross section with butter and honey




Gowns, Ghosts, and Gazpacho

Just as that festive period from Thanksgiving to Christmas reminds me of my Grandma Helen so do the dog days of summer remind me of my Nana Rosie.  I have so many sunny grass stained memories from times spent with her.  Namely, Graeter’s French pot ice cream sundaes, vats of spicy gazpacho, tea lights at twilight and Edwardian themed garden parties.

The first time I flew by myself to see Nana (well almost by myself, my dog, Bailey Jane, came with), she instructed my mother to buy me a turn of the century lawn dress.  I’d need it for the ice cream social her vintage dance society was hosting.

Nana loves vintage dancing.  She loves it so much she built a studio in her basement.  She’s performed at the governor’s mansion multiple times.  She also travels to Europe most summers to dance the gavotte.  If you couldn’t guess, Nana loves wearing period gowns.

nana on the carousel

A day before the ice cream social, Nana blued my dress and hung it outside.  We passed the time by making gallons of gazpacho and going to the zoo.  When my dress was dry the cotton smelled so clean and soaked with sun.  Laundresses of colonial India couldn’t have hoped to do a better job.  Wearing it transformed me.  The moment I was buttoned in, my posture instantly improved.  So much so that I appeared to have shot up an inch.  Nana let me wear pale pink lipstick and that afternoon I paraded around like a peacock in Edwardian eyelet.  A 13 year old peacock, but still . . .

The last summer I lived in L.A., Nana invited me to a ball on the now defunct RMS Queen Mary.  Originally built in Clydebank, Scotland in 1936, this ship drips with ghost stories and art deco splendor.  Some say it was the grandest ocean liner of its time.  Even its passengers were grand:  Clark Gable, David Niven, Mary Pickford, George and Ira Gershwin, Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  During World War II The Queen Mary became a troopship and was dubbed “The Grey Ghost” as that’s the color it was painted for camouflage.  Now the ship is a tourist attraction in Long Beach, California.  It functions as a floating hotel with a spa and several restaurants, a museum, and multiple halls that serve as event venues.  One such event is the Vintage Dance Week Ball.

Port hole view Queen Mary

While Nana dressed for La Belle Epoque, I went Thoroughly Modernly Millie.  She was ready for Hesitation Waltzes.  I was ready to fake my way through foxtrots.  It was a brilliant evening and everyone hit the tiles with gay abandon just like Bertie Wooster would have in the P.G. Wodehouse stories.  The orchestra was swinging and the only sour note of the evening was when one very serious couple chastised me for being in the fast lane when I shouldn’t have been during the Lambeth Walk.  I just apologized and said I didn’t know there was a fast lane on the dance floor.  Did you?

Nana DSCN2204

As I mentioned earlier, The Queen Mary, is known for its paranormal activity.  In 2008, Time Magazine named it one of the ten most haunted sites in America.  Since its retirement, there have been multiple ghost sightings.  A sailor who died in the engine room, a fireman crushed by a door, children who drowned in the pool, and a mysterious lady in white.  Cabin B340 was closed off years ago after hotel guests kept reporting that their sheets would fly off the bed and across the room or that their bathroom faucets would keep turning off and on.  I had no such experience the night of the ball, though my heart did race as I walked down the long and majestically carpeted corridor to powder my nose and I realized no one else was around.  That said, every photo I took inside the ship that evening came out a gilded blur.  Each one had an ethereal quality I couldn’t explain.  But there we are like ghosts gliding across the dance floor.  Take a look and tell me what you think.  Also, I’ve included several gazpacho recipes that Nana just emailed to me.  She recommends taking your favorite elements from a few of the recipes and combining them to suit your tastes.

the art deco ball

Nana's gazpachosgazpacho with roasted shrimp Ina Garten's gazpacho

Grandma’s Old-Timey-Any-Timey Rolls

I love sweets.  Especially of the baked variety.  If a day goes by and I don’t have a cookie or a slice of cake or a bite of pie, I feel sorry for myself.  Real sorry.

Some of my favorite sweets are the ones you can eat all day long like my Grandma’s sweet rolls.  Sure I could have a cupcake for breakfast if I really wanted, but I find more shame in that than having something like a cinnamon roll or an orange roll which was created for the breakfast table–even though they’re just as delicious at tea.  See where I’m going with this?  Sweets you can eat all day long.

These rolls my Grandma makes are magical.  Not just because they taste good but because the dough can take on different shapes and flavors.  Orange, cinnamon, or even plain butter which is as suitable with jam at breakfast as it is mopping up gravy at dinner.  Below are her recipes.  I hope they bring you as much joy as they have me.

Ingredients for Grandma’s Sweet Roll Dough:

1/2 cup warm water (NOT HOT)

2 sachets active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups lukewarm whole milk

1/2 cup granulated or caster sugar

2 teaspoons salt

2 large eggs

1/2 cup soft shortening

7 cups of flour


Put the warm water in a large mixing bowl and add the yeast to it.  Stir to dissolve.  Then stir in the rest of the ingredients.  With regards to the flour, incorporate it a few cups at a time.  This will make it more manageable.  *As Grandma’s recipe comes from a time before standup mixers or even electric hand held ones, feel free to use your modern equipment complete with dough hooks.  Or do it like Grandma did.  One batch of these and you can skip going to the gym.  You’ll advance directly to the gun show.  You’ll know your dough is done when it’s soft, elastic, somewhat shiny, and still slightly sticky.

Transfer the dough to a large greased bowl.  Grease the top of the dough with soft butter.  Cover with a warm damp cloth and put the bowl in a warm place so the yeast can do its job and the dough can double in size.  This happens within about 1 1/2 hours.

Now, punch down your dough and let rise again until double.  This should take about 30 minutes.

Divide your dough for desired rolls and follow their recipes accordingly.

Ingredients for Cinnamon Rolls:

1/2 sweet roll dough recipe

2 – 3 tablespoons softened butter

1/2 cup sugar

3 teaspoons cinnamon


Roll the dough into an oblong rectangle, approximately 15×9″.  Spread the dough with the butter.  Next, mix the sugar and cinnamon then sprinkle uniformly across the dough.

Now roll up the dough as tightly as you can starting at the wide side.  Seal well by pinching the edges of the roll together.

Cut the roll into 1″ slices.  Place them in greased muffin tins or slightly apart in a greased 13×9″ jelly roll pan.

Cover and let rise until double in bulk.  Approximately 35-45 minutes.  Bake at 375°F/190.5C for 25-35 minutes or until golden brown.

Let the buns cool slightly, but frost when still slightly warm.

Ingredients for Cinnamon Roll Icing:

2 cups powdered sugar (icing sugar)

2 tablespoons softened butter

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 – 2 tablespoons whole milk

Mix everything together until you get a nice thick glaze.  Immediately drizzle over your rolls as the icing will form a crust and harden as it cools.

Ingredients for Orange Rolls:

1/2 sweet roll dough

3 tablespoons soft butter

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar (icing sugar)


Roll the dough into an oblong rectangle, approximately 15×9″.  Spread the dough with the butter.

Mix the other ingredients to make a creamy orange frosting.  Then spread half of it over the dough.

Now roll up the dough as tightly as you can starting at the wide side.  Seal well by pinching the edges of the roll together.

Cut the roll into 1″ slices.  Place them in greased muffin tins or slightly apart in a greased 13×9″ pan.

Cover and let rise until double in bulk.  Approximately 35-45 minutes.  Bake at 375°F/190.5C for 25-35 minutes or until golden brown.

Let the buns cool slightly and frost with the rest of the orange icing when still slightly warm.

Method for Butterhorn Rolls:

Take half the dough recipe and roll into a 12″ round.  Lightly butter.  Then cut the round into 16 wedges.  Next, roll up your wedges starting from the outside edge first.  Tuck the points underneath.  It should look like a croissant.  Place the rolls on a baking tray and bake e at 375°F/190.5C for 25-35 minutes or until golden brown.

Eat them with jam or honey at breakfast, slice them to make sandwiches at lunch, and use them to mop up your savories at supper.