Fun fact: Rhubarb is a vegetable. And vegetables make some of the funnest desserts. Rhubarb is also very tart. Logically, therefore, it makes good tarts.
I've eaten rhubarb pie before -- I remember the first time I ate it, the rhubarb was very green, and the texture seemed so vegetal that I was very weirded out by my pie. But, as I'm making an effort to explore new produce, I decided to cook up some of my own and bought some rhubarb last weekend from a very puzzled man at a produce stand. What are you going to do with it?, he asked me in a fascinated but ashamed almost-whisper, as I'm sure a produce man selling rhubarb can lose face a bit by not knowing what it actually is.
Some restaurant guys had me get ahold of some for them, he explained, but I have no idea what it is. How does one cook this?
I must admit I was ill-equipped to really educate the produce man, but I was able to explain that it's very tart and people usually cook it with plenty of sugar to make desserts. I, personally, would be making tarts, I offered. Yes, I had already decided their sugary fate.
What I hadn't decided was the bit about the molasses. That came after a panicked, last-minute realization that I had no more "brown sugar" left. Let me explain these quotation marks: finding brown sugar in France itself has been a long process, and it isn't over. At first, I had no idea how to find it because I had no idea what it was called. I asked people if there was anything called sucre brun (literally: brown sugar). No, they said, but there is sucre roux (red sugar). So I happily and promptly bought myself a little container of sucre roux, only to discover that it was, in fact, not what I wanted. Sucre roux is raw sugar. Nice, but no cigar.
I tried again to explain, and a friend of mine who's an experienced cook told me I must be referring to cassonnade. Cassonnade is what the French put in things like pain d'épices ("spice bread," the French version of gingerbread); things which have a nice brown color and that deeper, more caramel-y sugar flavor. That must be it, I thought to myself. So I got me some cassonade. And nope, it was just more course, unrefined sugar.
Then one day, in a certain fancy épicerie which has an entire sugar section (including sugar cubes in various shapes and colors and exotic flavored sugars), I came across a little paper sack that looked promising. So I squished it. And, just like a good bag of soft brown sugar, it squished back. It was called Vergeoise.
Vergeoise and I had a good run after that, and I was pleased to discover that I could find it in regular supermarkets. I made plenty of American goodies with it, like chocolate chip cookies and homemade granola bars. We were getting along so well, vergeoise and I. Until I read this.
Vergeoise is just refined beet sugar sprayed with caramel coating!
Disappointed that vergeoise had been leading me on, had been deceiving me, at least now I knew what the real equivalent to good brown sugar was: cassonnade indeed, but the soft version. Where would I ever find that?
I still don't know. So I haven't. And my rhubarb got cooked with white sugar, but I decided to add some molasses. Since molasses is the stuff that gets taken out of sugar when it's refined (the strong, untamed part of sugar), adding it to white sugar is one way of putting that flavor back in the picture. But I have Blackstrap Molasses right now, which is quite strong, and added quite a lot of serious molassasity (if I may). This actually turned out to be a really good decision, in my opinion. The flavors went really well together. So in the future I plan to integrate rhubarb into my gingerbread. I will be sure to tell you how that goes.
In the meantime, make these tartelettes! They honestly blow rhubarb pie right out of the water, also in part because of their delectable crust which uses a mix of wheat flour, corn flour, and corn meal. It gives them substance and texture, but they're still delicate. Three cheers to the cookbook author who made it all possible!
Molasses Rhubarb Tartelettes, recipe from Smitten Kitchen but adapted from Good to the Grain, plus my molasses, makes about 10 tartelettes
About 4-1/2 cups rhubarb, chopped roughly (set 1-1/2 cups of this aside)
1 cup minus 3 tablespoons sugar
3-4 tablespoons molasses (depending on strength, and your taste)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup corn flour
1/2 cup corn meal
heaping 1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold butter, finely grated with a cheese grater
generous 1/2 cup heavy cream
2 egg yolks
Put the 3 cups rhubarb not set aside in a saucepan with the sugar and molasses. Cook covered on low for 15-20 minutes until there's plenty of liquid that's been released from the rhubarb. Put heat on medium and uncover the saucepan, cooking 15-20 minutes more until thick, and a spoon leaves a trail in the pan. Set aside to cool.
Mix the dry ingredients for the crust together. Add grated butter, mix in briefly with hands until it ressembles course meal. Add the cream and egg yolks gradually, stirring to incorporate with a wooden spoon. Knead very briefly on a floured surface with your hands until homogenous.
Pull the dough into 10 equal pieces. Chill them until cold again, then put them back on your workspace and smash them flat with your hand. Spoon rhubarb compote into the center of each disk, and fold up the edges to contain the compote. Extra points for flourish, if you use overlapping, etc.
Put the tarts on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper in the freezer for at least 1 hour (but for up to 2 weeks, so you can bake these fresh when you want them! If you freezer is bigger than mine...), then bake them at 375ºF / 190ºC for about 35 minutes or until the edges have started to brown. EAT.