Mennonite Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

When I was a kid, nearly every garden in northern Wisconsin featured two perennial vegetables.  Both yield better when they have a chance to rest during a nice cold winter, which helps explain why they were so popular in our part of the United States.

The first was a row of winter onions.  My father loved those onions and waited impatiently every spring for the new green sprouts to get big enough to pull.  He would come home from work and walk out to the garden sometimes even before going in the house when they were getting close to being ready to pick.  Pushing the season a little, Dad would bring in a dozen tender green onions for supper, and we would know that spring was finally here.

The second was two or three rhubarb plants.  Rhubarb was classified as a fruit in 1947 by a court in New York State because it is used as a fruit, but I still think that stalks that resemble celery are best considered a vegetable.

My mother was in charge of our rhubarb, though Dad helped with the mulching, liming and fertilizing.  When the time came, Mom pulled big stalks of rhubarb and made pies, sauce, cakes, breads and marmalade.  I enjoyed them all, but my favorite was her sauce.  It made a nice change from the canned berries and applesauce Mom had put up the previous summer.

Once in a futile attempt to lose some weight I bought a little calorie counter book small enough to put in my pocket.  My plan was to consult it before buying any tempting food item.  Jerri made the sensible observation that if I just reduced portion sizes and exercised a bit more I would probably not need the book.  As  sat at the kitchen table looking for some low-calorie foods I liked that she could make to help me lose weight, I found rhubarb.

“Here’s one,” I said.  “Rhubarb.  One cup of rhubarb has only 26 calories.  And I love rhubarb.”
“That’s raw rhubarb,” she answered.  “Check rhubarb sauce.”

Needless to say, rhubarb sauce did not make it onto my list of diet foods, but I still enjoy a little of it from time to time along with some other rhubarb favorites.

Soon we will be making Jerri’s rhubarb custard pie again, and if you want to try it, the recipe is in the blog archives from last May.  Here is another delicious rhubarb desert.  A couple of days ago, Jerri made this upside down cake from a recipe in the Mennonite Community Cookbook.  She thought that it was a little too sweet with all the brown sugar caramelized on the bottom, but I loved it.

INGREDIENTS:

1/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
2 cups diced rhubarb
1 cup brown sugar
2 T butter

PROCEDURE:

Pull three or four large stalks of rhubarb.  Trim the base of the stalks and cut off the leaves, which are not edible.  Wash the stalks and dice them into 1/3 to 1/2 inch pieces. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Melt the butter.  Grease a 9 by 9 inch cake pan or 10 inch pie pan.  Mix the butter, sugar and rhubarb in the pan and set it aside.

Cream the sugar and shortening in a mixing bowl, then beat in the egg.  Sift the flour, salt and baking powder and add alternately with the milk.  Stir until you have a smooth batter.

Spread the batter over the rhubarb mixture and bake at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

Note:  Serve with half and half or cream.  Makes nine generous servings.

Grandma Hopp’s Gingerbread Cookies

When Grandpa Hopp, my mother’s father, bought Grandma a new gas kitchen range, she was excited and happy to think of how much better it would be than the old wood stove it replaced.  In the summer especially, it would be a blessing not to have a hot stove in the kitchen on baking day.

That was the theory.  One hot summer day we discovered that Grandma had made Grandpa replace the gas range with the old wood stove.  “I just can’t bake good bread with that new stove,” she explained, and as long as Grandpa was able to cut, split and carry in wood for the stove, Grandma cooked and baked as she had for the previous 60 years.

She made wonderful bread made all the more wonderful because Grandpa would cut slices for him and me, lay on thick slices of Limburger cheese and onion, and tell me stories as we ate our snack.  Mom thought it was gross, but I loved it.

I have not eaten Limburger cheese in many years, but I really enjoy its milder cousins, Aged or Milwaukee Brick and Beer Kaese.  The aroma may turn you off, but once you bring yourself to try these cheeses, you may discover that your palate is more catholic than you imagined.

Thinking about Grandma Hopp’s baking reminded me of her gingerbread cookies.  She made them every year for Christmas.  They were thick, soft and delicious.  I don’t remember if she decorated them or not, but she had an old-fashioned gingerbread cookie cutter and I do recall how much fun it was to eat those cookies leg by leg and arm by arm.

I asked my sister Patsy if she had Grandma Hopp’s gingerbread cookie recipe.  She has never made them but she said she would look though my mother’s recipe boxes.  A few days later an envelope arrived with a photocopy of a recipe card titled “Grandma Hopp’s Christmas Gingerbread Cookies” and a request from Patsy to tell her how they turned out.

The recipe is a list of ingredients (including a question mark after “1/3 cup milk”) with instructions to “Roll out 1/4 in. thick, cut out, & bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 10 minutes.”  But I screwed up my courage, stirred up a batch and made some cookies that tasted pretty much like I remembered.  And it is still fun to eat them leg by leg and arm by arm.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup shortening or lard
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1/3 cup milk
5 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ginger
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
white sugar for sprinkling

PROCEDURE:

Cream the shortening and sugar.  Blend in the molasses and milk and stir well.  Add the spices and soda to the flour and sift by cupfuls into the liquid ingredients.  Stir well after each addition until you have a stiff dough.  If necessary, add a little more milk to moisten all the dry ingredients.  You should end up with a stiff dough that you can form into a ball.  Refrigerate the dough for an hour or so to make it easier to roll out.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Flour a large breadboard.  Divide the dough in half and roll out to 1/4 inch thick.  Cut with a gingerbread man cutter.  If you are not planning to frost and decorate the cookies, sprinkle with a little white sugar.  Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 9-10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Let the cookies cool for a minute or two before transferring them to wax paper to finish cooling.  Store in a tightly sealed container.

NOTE:  I rolled some cookies out to about 1/4 inch thickness, and others to about 1/8 inch and they turned out okay too.  I rolled the trimmings into part of the unused dough each time.  Perhaps the cookies were a little tougher, but they were still good.