Saturday, 2 June 2012

Elephant No. 244: Rhubarb-Apple Crumble

A few days ago, neighbours gave us some lovely fresh rhubarb from their country home. Since today marks two-thirds the way through this yearlong project, I thought I'd celebrate by making a rhubarb crumble.

Sometimes called "fruit crisps", fruit crumbles are prepared with a streusel-style topping, and may or may not include a struesel bottom crust. Although the mixture of sugar, butter and crumbs that constitutes streusel is German in origin, fruit crumble is thought to be American. It is also relatively recent, first showing up in cookbooks in the early 1920s.

Fruit crumbles can be made with whatever fresh fruit is in season: peaches, pears, apples, berries, apricots, plums and so forth. The first fruit crumble was made with apples, soon adapted to include rhubarb as a tart counterpart to the apples.

Rhubarb itself has an interesting history, and wasn't always the lowly, common food it has become in North America. Used by the Chinese for millennia as a medicinal herb, rhubarb was once one of the most valuable commodities traded along the Silk Road, often listed in the same breath as silk, rubies, diamonds and pearls. Native to the Russian steppes, it actually gets its name from a conflation of the Scythian rha and Greek barbarum: both words for the Volga River, along which the plant grew.

Rhubarb stalks and leaves. Only the stalk is edible—the leaves
are toxic, due primarily to a high concentration of oxalic acid.

Rhubarb was originally a savoury or medicinal food, and wasn't included in desserts until sugar became more readily available in Europe during the seventeenth century. Rhubarb didn't arrive in North America until the 1820s, but has since been naturalized across the continent. Almost everyone I know has grown rhubarb in a family garden at some point—usually as a food crop, but also for the rich brown dye it produces. In northern regions, where nut trees wouldn't grow, rhubarb was once considered an excellent substitute for the dye produced from walnut husks.

Although I've eaten fruit crumbles many times, I don't think I've ever made one, so this could be interesting. Despite having enough rhubarb to make a rhubarb crumble, I liked the idea of a crumble that included apples as well. I also liked the idea of a crumble that had a bottom crust, so I looked online, and combined the things I liked best about several recipes.

This was my final recipe:

Elephant a Day Rhubarb-Apple Crisp

4 cups (1000 ml) fruit—I used 2 cups (500 ml) of rhubarb and 2 cups (500 ml) of apples
3/4–1 cup (180–250 ml) sugar, depending on sweetness of fruit
2 Tbsp (30 ml) flour
1/2 tsp (2 ml) cinnamon
1/2 tsp (2 ml) almond flavouring

Topping and Crust
1 cup (250 ml) flour
3/4 cup (180 ml) uncooked rolled oats
1/4 cup (60 ml) unsweetened coconut (optional)
1/4 cup (60 ml) chopped nuts (optional)—I used crumbled, sliced almonds
1/2 tsp (2 ml) cinnamon
1 cup (250 ml) brown sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) melted butter—shortening, margarine or vegetable oil can be substituted

1. Blend topping/crust ingredients, and press half of the mixture into a 23 x 23 cm (9 x 9 inch) baking pan.  

2. Mix together cut fruit with other filling ingredients and layer on top of crust.

3. Sprinkle remaining topping/crust mixture over fruit.

4. Bake at 350˚F (175˚C) for 45 minutes, or until crust is lightly browned and fruit bubbles up.

I started by making the topping/crust mixture, blending it largely with my fingers.

I took half of this and pressed it gently into the bottom of a glass pan measuring 20 x 20 cm (8 x 8 inches). Although the recipe calls for 23 x 23 cm (9 x 9 inches), the smaller size I used is also fine. It just means thicker layers of everything, and a few more minutes baking time.

I chopped the rhubarb next, cutting two long stalks into slices measuring about 2.5 cm (1 inch) in width, then quartering these.

I cut two large Empire apples into pieces about the same size as the rhubarb, then mixed all the filling ingredients together.

This was layered onto the crumbs pressed into the pan.

I added an elephant to the middle of this next. I made it relatively thick, thinking that the fruit juices would bubble up and overwhelm it otherwise. I found it surprisingly difficult to make a streusel elephant.

I added the rest of the streusel topping around the elephant after this, making the elephant even thicker, and trying to leave a little "moat" around the elephant shape. As you can see, the elephant gets more or less lost in the visual confusion. I tried to remedy this a little by sprinkling cinnamon and coarse sugar on the elephant shape, thinking that this might help it turn darker when baked.

I then baked the whole thing for about 50 minutes in a 350˚F (175˚C) oven.

Although it smelled great and cooked well, the elephant remains virtually invisible. Oh well. If I were to try this again, I would leave a much wider gap between the elephant shape and the surrounding streusel. I might even consider making a shape from a scrap of piecrust rather than streusel, if I wanted to be absolutely sure the shape showed.

To finish up, I cut a birthday candle to a two-thirds length, lit it, and blew it out.

I can't say I'm not a little disappointed by the dematerialization of my elephant. Then again, I didn't really expect the shape to be wildly obvious with a topping like this. And what really matters, in the end, is that it's quite tasty.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although elephants are said to be willing to work for peanuts, they're obviously not willing to work for nothing.

In  May 2007, a domesticated elephant killed its two handlers in northern Vietnam, after being forced to work without food. The one-tusked male elephant was used in the logging industry, and for years had worked without incident. One day, however, it had obviously had enough.

After working throughout an entire morning without food, the elephant became angry when his handlers tried to force him back into the forest to haul more trees. Turning on the two men, the elephant gored and killed them both.

Although a morning without food doesn't sound that bad, elephants have very inefficient digestive systems. Unable to absorb large quantities of nutrients from the food they consume, elephants must eat massive quantities of vegetation each day, often grazing for more than 16 hours out of every 24.

Following the killings, the elephant was chained and held by village authorities. This particular elephant had killed another worker in 1994, and villagers were unsure whether or not it should be put to death. Because Vietnam bans the hunting of the country's dwindling elephant population, the village sought advice from the provincial government. The ultimate fate of the elephant is unknown.

Chained Asian bull elephant, Pinnawela Elephant Home,
Sri Lanka, 2009
Photo: Mahen Boralessa

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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