I first ate rhubarb at the tender age of 5. It came in a Mason jar and was called rhubarb sauce, the rhubarb equivalent of applesauce. It wasn’t my mother who made it — that simply wasn’t in her repertoire — but our neighbor Gaga. She and her husband, whom we called More Gaga, were retired and childless, so they became surrogate grandparents to my sisters and me. They spoiled us, and we loved going to their house, just across the driveway.
This was in the days when a Midwestern table had, instead of a green salad, a little bowl of applesauce for each person, placed to the left of the dinner plate, just above the fork. But sometimes it was Gaga’s rhubarb sauce, which we considered a treat. It always seemed special.
It would be many years until I learned to prepare it myself. By then, I had also discovered rhubarb pies and cobblers. In a friend’s garden, I learned to recognize the rhubarb bush, a bulging cluster of long, thick stems with giant leaves. Strangely, the stalks are edible, but the leaves are toxic. Rhubarb, once planted, comes back year after year, a sure sign of spring.
Technically a vegetable, it is treated like a fruit, simmered to softness with sugar to counteract its astringency. Even when cooked and sweetened, it maintains a slightly sour flavor.
Rhubarb is quite popular for dessert in England, Scotland and Ireland, especially in fools and trifles. Making a fool is easy, just a matter of folding together cooked rhubarb and lightly whipped cream. But a trifle is more complex, involving layers of sponge cake, custard sauce, stewed rhubarb and whipped cream.
I’ve come up with a simplified version of trifle that is very easy to put together. It has no custard sauce or whipped cream, but it is rich and delicious nonetheless, and can be assembled up to a day in advance. Boozy, soggy, creamy, sweet and tart, it is somewhat like a tiramisù, since it is layered with ladyfingers. I used a splash of Campari for its color and slight bitterness, along with orange liqueur and brandy, to punch up the cooked rhubarb’s syrup.
But I just found out they’re making rhubarb-flavored pink gin across the pond. For my next trifle, that might be an excellent option.