I came back from New York with a burning urge to read. I haven't read much past my weekly New Yorker since moving to Berlin and without realizing it, had started to feel a little bereft. This bookworm needs her friends! Her crisp hardcovers and soft-edged paperbacks with dogeared pages. Right now I'm elbow-deep in Kim Severson's Spoon Fed and enjoying it immensely. It's the kind of book I'd like to plow through in one fell swoop and the only reason I haven't done that yet is I'm trying to make it last.
Like many recent books about food culture in America, there is a bit in the book about Marion Cunningham, she of the yeasted waffles, James Beard's bosom buddy, reviser extraordinaire of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Reading about Marion always makes me want to hustle into the kitchen in two seconds flat and get busy making spoon bread and one-bowl chocolate cakes.
You know what is so cozy? Lying in bed (in my bedroom under the eaves of the roof), listening to a gentle rain, reading about Marion Cunningham, then getting up, padding down the hallway to the living room where I can pull out Fannie Farmer from the bookcase, get back into bed, and curl up with two good books at once. Really, it's the only way to spend a rainy morning.
Anyway, along with the big, fat, white spears of asparagus from the regions near Berlin currently flooding the farmer's markets and bewitching me in all their odd, white, mandrake-root-like beauty, rosy rhubarb is the other thing I can't seem to get enough of. Every time I pass a pile of those red stalks, my body is sort of propelled over to them and I find myself buying a kilo or two, even if I've already got plenty at home as it is. I can't resist the rhubarb. Can you?
My latest clutch of stalks had been hanging out on my kitchen counter for the past day or two while I dithered back and forth on how to cook them. Roasted with white wine and vanilla bean? Chunked and marmaladed with grapefruit peel or ginger? Turned into a sort of crisp-crumble with spelt flour streusel? (More on that spelt flour business soon.) But then I found myself in bed with Marion Cunningham and Fannie Farmer, reading about rhubarb Betty, and that's when all other plans shot straight out the window.
In the pantheon of homey American desserts, I've known crumbles, grunt, slumps and pandowdies. I've done crisps and buckles, too. But the Betty always remained just out of sight. I never knew quite what to expect from a Betty. It was too abstract, the name made even less sense than the other ones, and besides, I was too busy mastering baked dumplings and crumble toppings to really pay attention.
But. Oh, but.
I should have known that something as humble-sounding as a fruit Betty would win my heart.
Betties are, to be precise, the most austere of those homey desserts. The plainest, the strictest, if you will. Simply fruit and sugar topped with butter-soaked bread cubes. That's it. No batter, no streusel, no dumplings. Like deconstructed summer puddings. But more Puritan and with a bit more crunch.
Now, a Betty won't appeal to everyone. What I find so wonderful about its stripped-down, bare-naked self won't necessarily be your cup of tea. Perhaps you need a yielding cake or a spice-scented topping to make you happy. But if you, like me, are always on the hunt for fruit desserts that can be whipped up in the flash of an eye, don't sit like a lead brick in your belly and can do double-time as breakfast the next day, provided you have some plain yogurt lying around just waiting to be dolloped, then consider yourself in business.
Marion's original recipe has you stew a couple pounds of rhubarb with sugar and water on the stove before baking it with homemade breadcrumbs. When it's done, you serve it alongside sliced strawberries and whipped cream. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Indeed. The thing is, I'm a little tired of the strawberry-rhubarb combination. In fact, I think we should give it a rest for a bit, along with goat cheese and beet salads. Yes? Doesn't that sound like a good idea?
So I bought a box of frozen raspberries instead. And while I was at it, decided not to stew the rhubarb since that would make it fall apart and go a little pallid. I tossed the rhubarb with the raspberries and sugar (not as much as Marion first called for), then baked it in the oven for a few minutes while I prepared the bread.
Oh right, and instead of making breadcrumbs, I cubed several slices of plain white bread, then tossed those cubes with melted butter. Less butter than originally called for! I'm such a rebel, on all fronts. Look at me, having my way with this recipe! (I miss my food processor.)
I pulled the fruit from the oven after five minutes or so, topped the fruit with the cubed bread and put it back in the oven to brown and crisp and bubble.
Baking the fruit instead of stewing it allows it to keep its shape and its lustrous color. The raspberries looked like fat jewels among the chunks of rhubarb. The bread cubes, toasted and crunchy and rich, were textural marvels against the silky fruit. There was a good amount of syrupy juice at the bottom of the pan, which you'll want to spoon over each serving, soaking the bread crumbs a little, mixing in with whatever cream or yogurt you decide to dollop on top.
It's rather crucial, that final dairy dollop. Without it to smooth out the rough edges of the fruit, a Betty could be a little harsh, a little unrefined. But with the sweetness of cream or the sour slap of yogurt, the Betty turns into a delightful little dish, bound to cause polite giggles over the name to turn into rather greedy demands for second helpings and more.
This week, I keep thinking about inspiration and how crucial it is for our well-being. Inspiration keeps us moving forward and energized, connected with the world around us. I'd been feeling a little lonely and lost before I went to New York. I'd look at my recipes and my books each day and couldn't seem to wrap my head around them. Then I'd stare at the blank page in my computer, trying to write a blog post or a chapter, and it was like my head was filled with cotton wool, or worse, nothing.
Today, as I eat my leftover Betty for breakfast, and feel like I'm bubbling over with ideas and plans for the next few months, I have to thank Marion Cunningham for the inspiration for the recipe, Kim Severson for reminding me to look at that Fannie Farmer cookbook again, and my friend and agent Brettne for nudging me to read a little more. One thing leads to another and another and before you know it, you're writing an ode to Betties and feeling like everything is possible again. Life is pretty wonderful that way.
1.5 pounds trimmed rhubarb stalks, in 1-inch pieces
1/2 pound frozen or fresh raspberries
1/8 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 cups cubed white bread (5 to 6 slices)
5 tablespoons butter, melted
For serving, plain yogurt, sour cream, or cream, whipped or to pour
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. (175 degrees C.). Toss the rhubarb and raspberries with the sugar. Pile into an 8-inch square baking dish. Bake in the hot oven for 5 minutes.
2. While the fruit is baking, toss the cubed bread with the melted butter. Remove the dish from the oven, evenly scatter the buttered bread cubes over the fruit and place back in the oven for 30 minutes.
3. Let the betty cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream or a jug of pouring cream or even whipped cream.