The Baking Sheet visits Grandma Sadie: a recipe makeover

One of my faithful “Baking Sheet” correspondents, Amy MacDonald-Persons, is an accomplished baker, generous sharer of recipes, downright foodie, and busy mom of Elizabeth and Duncan. “The Baking Sheet” has a popular feature in every issue called the Recipe Makeover, where readers send me recipes, descriptions of food encounters (the Summer issue’s feature recreates a raspberry pie a reader had while visiting Sweden), or general requests for recipes they wish existed, and I go to town in the test kitchen and try to make those wishes come true.

Amy asked me to do a makeover of Grandma Sadie’s Best Rhubarb Dessert.

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You may already be familiar with this; it has the look of a women’s food magazine classic. The recipe calls for a small box of strawberry gelatin and boxed cake mix . Amy has some philosophical trouble with baking out of boxes that contain too many polysyllabic ingredients, some of which are isolated on my recipe notes below,

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and frankly I have to agree with her.

Before I show you what it’s about, a little context. Lizzie’s grandma would likely have come of age shortly after WWII, when commercially prepared foods were seen as a source of liberation. But if you step back a little further, it’s likely that Grandma Sadie’s mom would have made this dessert from scratch, probably with food from the backyard. Considering the rise of the localvore movement, everything old is new again, and we’ve come full circle.

Before I could redo the recipe, I had to make it as was presented to me. It starts by calling for 4 to 5 cups of diced rhubarb to be placed in an 8 1/2″ by 11” pan.

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First hurdle. I had no idea where to start looking for a pan that size, so I was forced to do some square-inch conversions. 8 1/2″ x 11″ comes out to 93.5 square inches. What do we have that’s close?
9″ x 9″? 81 square inches. Too puny. Serious overflow risk.
9″ x 13″? 117 square inches. Too big: not enough “stuff” to fill it properly.
I was saved by the sight of our sticky bun pan, which is 10” square. At 100 square inches, it was the closest thing we had, and since the recipe gave a range for the rhubarb, I figured I’d be in the zone with the larger amount. If you have a shallow, 2-quart casserole, that’s about the right size.

I buttered it, put in the rhubarb, and sprinkled a cup of sugar over it, as the recipe said.

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Next, the box of strawberry gelatin gets sprinkled on top.

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I walked away for a few minutes to retrieve my cup of tea and send an email. When I came back, the gelatin had started

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to absorb liquid from the rhubarb, creating an eerie, not-found-in-nature color.

After that, either one box of Jiffy® cake mix, or half a box of “regular-sized” cake mix

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is sprinkled over. I bought the latter at the store, and saw that it weighed 18 1/2 ounces. Kitchen scale to the rescue: I measured 9 1/4 ounces of the mix and sprinkled it over the gelatin.

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When things get busy on my station in the kitchen, flour and sticky things are flying everywhere. I learned some time ago that if I wanted my calculator to work in that environment, it needed a raincoat. So it lives, quite nicely, in a zip-top sandwich bag.

Small rant: I can’t stand the smell of most boxed cake mixes. They generally use bleached flour, and it hits me like a ton of bricks when I open the package. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d find refuge here in the land of unbleached flour. But I digress.

The next step is to put some butter (3 ounces) and water (1/2 cup) together,

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bring it to a simmer, and pour it over the top of the cake mix.

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I found that the amount of liquid wasn’t quite enough to moisten all of the mix, but soldiered on nonetheless. Into the oven it went.

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After baking for 30 minutes at 350°F, this is what came out of the oven. I assessed it as a technicolor version of a cobbler, with a fake vanilla taste from the cobbler in the topping.

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PJ said: “The Jell-O is giving it the scary color. ” After tasting it: “Very sweet. Not much ‘tang’. I can see why kids would like it.”

Andrea said: “It isn’t revolting. It’s just sad.” Andrea likes her fruity treats to be authentic.

There were a couple of dry spots in the topping, and I could see that the gelatin was there mostly for more sugar and thickening as well as a hint of strawberry-type taste. Now I knew what I was shooting for: thickened rhubarb with some strawberry flavor, with a topping that was somewhere between a cake-style cobbler and a crisp. I nosed around The Baker’s Companion for some cobbler and crisp formulas, and took a little from here and a little from there. I also decided to take the bold step of getting strawberry flavor from actual strawberries.
This is what I came up with:

Fruit
1 pound strawberries
4 cups rhubarb
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1/3 cup tapioca (small pearls, e.g. “Minute”), or cornstarch

Topping mix
2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) melted butter
1/4 cup (2 ounces) milk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
sparkling sugar for garnish

Heads up, readers: this is just my first experimental list of ingredients. For the recipe that really works, click on the link above or below and use the one from the recipe section.

I measured out some more rhubarb and strawberries, and sprinkled the tapioca over it. For tapioca to work properly, it needs to soak up liquid and soften before it’s cooked; otherwise you’re at risk for uncooked, hard nuggets, even after baking.

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Now the sugar, to help pull some of the juice out of the fruit to moisten the tapioca.

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While the fruit sits and soaks, I’ll put together the topping. The dry ingredients get whisked together.

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After mixing together the milk, melted butter, egg and vanilla, stir them into the dry ingredients. My trusty Danish dough whisk comes to the rescue once again.

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Plop the batter on top of the fruit, which is now waiting in the baking dish.

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After spreading the batter on top, here’s how the dessert was looking after half an hour in the oven.

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Hey, colors found in nature! The center wasn’t quite cooked through, though. I did what I always do when feeling my way toward the “right” baking time: set my timer for 5 minutes, checked, and set it for another 5 if it needed it. The trick is to write down what you’ve done, so you’re not guessing how you got there after you’re done.

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This version took 40 minutes to bake, partly because the strawberries were partially frozen when the dish went into the oven.

How was it?

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Real strawberry taste, to go with the rhubarb! I was close; but a couple more tweaks were needed. I’d used pie-thickening proportions for the tapioca, and it hadn’t had enough time to soak before baking. So I cut the tapioca in half, and let it sit with the fruit and sugar mixture for 30 minutes before baking.

At the risk of moving this dessert from homespun to highfalutin’, I decided to try piping the topping over the filling, for a couple of reasons: it’s an easy way to make sure the batter goes where you want it, and you can play a little bit with a design. So I decided to cut the tip off a disposable pastry bag

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put the batter into it, and pipe it over the fruit.

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Next, a generous sprinkle of sparkling sugar

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and then into the oven for 45 minutes, to get it a nice, golden brown.

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PJ and I agreed that some sparkling sugar on top was just the thing, and everybody got happily busy with their spoons.

So, Amy, here’s your new recipe: Best Rhubarb Dessert, reinvented. Thanks for the idea, and the opportunity to take advantage of my garden’s rhubarb patch.

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The strawberries are on their way, as you can see.

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Soon I’ll introduce them to the rhubarb that’s waiting in the freezer, and now I know just which recipe to use.

Susan Reid
About

Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently enjoying her fourth career after stints in advertising, running restaurants, and teaching at the New England Culinary Institute. She joined King Arthur in 2002 to ...

comments

  1. Laura Flowers

    Hi Susan,

    Ya know, in the 50s very successful food corporations fought to convince women that their modern food products were better than what they were currently making with outdated real food. That took a lot of work!

    If you make a beautiful fresh cobbler without and freaky weird neon colors, then how in the world are you going to make these corporations happy?

    Psst, can I can some of that second cobbler?

    Laura

    Hi, Laura. My strawberries are JUST starting to turn color, so if you come by next week there should be a feast! Susan

    Reply
  2. Lothaire

    Um, major fail here. I’ve got a virtually identical family recipe (as you say, it’s kind of a magazine staple) and the key is to mix the cake batter ingredients BEFORE pouring on top of the rhubarb. Then you get a really nice upside-down cake.. type… thing. It’s tasty anyway, and something I make sure to bake at least once every summer.
    Obviously, what you say makes sense, but I can only react to the recipes as they come over the transom to my computer! We were all surprised at how well it worked, even with the awkward directions I was given, but I’d still rather go from scratch. Thanks for the correction! Susan

    Reply
  3. Lish

    I actually have several recipes that call for 8 1/2 by 11 and have found that the old small pyrex or corningware casserole dishes are that size, and are perfect for just such a recipe. This looks fabulous, and everyone in my house loves strawberry rhubarb, so this will be a great father’s day dessert. Thanks!
    You’re most welcome! Glad to be of help. Susan

    Reply
  4. Erin in PA

    This looks SO delicious! I just overcame my fear of rhubarb last month – unfortunately,I just made strawberry-rhubarb compote this morning. Guess I am going to have to head back to the farm stand for more berries… Our berries are just winding down.

    Hi, Erin! We’re having a lot of cool, rainy weather, which is slowing my particular patch of berries down, but in the valley where our office is, we’ve been snacking on local farmstand berries at every opportunity. Susan

    Reply
  5. Melissa

    This looks wonderful, the homemade version looks especially good.
    When your strawberries ripen maybe you can makeover the strawberry pie recipe that uses jello? I love that pie, but am trying to avoid all the dyes.

    Dear Melissa: I must be hopelessly out of touch; I haven’t seen the recipe you’re referring to, but if you email it to me at susan.reid@kingarthurflour.com, I’ll take a swing at it when I get a chance. Susan

    Reply
  6. Margy

    I had never eaten rhubarb before this year. My sister and I split a share from our local CSA (community sustained agriculture), and our first share included some Braeburn storage apples and 4 long stalks of rhubarb, neither in themselves enough to make a dish for 6 people (my sister’s family and me). So I decided to wing it; peeled/cored/sliced the apples, chopped the rhubarb, tossed it all with sugar, spices and a touch of KA flour, made a streusal with brown sugar, spices, vanilla powder and KA flour for on top, and baked until everything was tender and bubbly. Served with vanilla ice cream; devoured by everyone (although the kids asked “are there VEGETABLES in this?). I like to take basic recipes and play with them to come up with something different. Nothing has turned out bad enough that someone was not willing to eat it (although with teenage boys, the issue of edibility is sometimes a shady one!)

    I congratulate you, Margy, on your willingness to experiment. There’s nothing more satisfying than going on a kitchen adventure and surprising yourself and your audience with the tasty results. Susan

    Reply
  7. Lesley

    I have a couple of rhubarb-phobes in my family. (I like it but I can’t eat a whole pan by myself) Would this work with all strawberries or a berry mix?

    Lesley: yes, it would, no problem. I think it would work with any berry, and probably with peaches as well. Susan

    Reply
  8. Sue

    Your updated version looks sooooo much better than the one from the boxes. Good job!!
    If you come up with an update to the strawberry pie recipe that Melissa mentioned I’d love to know about it. I think I know what she’s referring to and I have a love/hate relationship with it. I would love a recipe that doesn’t call for the boxed jello.

    Reply
  9. Kathy

    Excellent adaption of a pre-fab favorite! Wanted to post a response to the commenter named Lothaire.

    Lothaire, it would seem to be logical to most bakers that wet and dry ingredients are stirred together before they’re baked. However, in this case, it’s correct as Susan noted. I live in the upper Midwest, and this type of dessert is known to some bakers as a “dump cake” because the ingredients are simply dumped into the pan. The variations I know call for fresh or canned fruit (or canned pie filling) in the pan first, then a boxed cake mix, then a generous amount of melted butter poured over the top. As much as I love baking from scratch (and I’ve been doing it for my entire life), I will happily admit to a weak spot for the version that consists of canned cherry pie filling, yellow cake mix, and lots of butter. I haven’t made it in a very long time, but once or twice a year, I find it present on a family buffet meal, and I take a big helping. Taste is subjective, right?

    Ah, the oddities of mid-twentieth-century recipes! It’s a real pleasure to read of the ups and downs of adapting such recipes for cooks, bakers, and eaters who want something made from scratch. Thank you so very much, KAF bakers & bloggers!

    Reply
  10. Marcia

    I miss rhubarb so much–living in the South. It is too hot in ATL for it to grow. I saw it at Whole Foods a few weeks ago $4 for 3 stalks. I don’t see the frozen any more.

    I have Corning Ware from the 60s of the size you mentioned as well as an enamel over cast iron “dressing pan” that size. That is what my Grandmother called it.

    I was reading an issues of Cooks Illustrated from a year ago and saw something odd. In the back it showed that they used XX brand of all purpose flour for baking. But, the directions showed to remove 1 Tablespoon of flour and substitute baking soda if you use KA flour to make bread; to make it like XX brand otherwise your bread will be gummy. You need to have a talk with CI.

    Hmmm… sounds peculiar. Did they maybe say substitute 1 tablespoon cornstarch? That’s often what people will do to lower the protein content of flour, though why you’d want to do that for bread, I don’t know. Maybe they were making self-rising flour? Ah well, a mystery… Thanks for keeping us up to date with CI, Marcia – PJH

    Reply
  11. Candace

    Today we picked 28 lb. of strawberries (for 2 people!) This recipe will be in the lineup for making with the fresh berries, and maybe on the menu in winter for the frozen ones. I eat rhubarb all summer by not letting it bolt. Also freeze it. Because of the rain, strawberries are just coming in here in southern NH. Jam, strawberry pie, strawberry bread (yum!) and s-rhubarb pie are all in my future. Then we’ll be sick of them and on to blueberries, raspberries and peaches. Then apples and grapes. Isn’t summer great?

    Indeed, Candace – and you live in a great area for fruit and veggies, too – the Garden State! Enjoy – PJH

    Reply
  12. jacquie

    i too shy away from recipes that start with a boxed mix & your rework of this looks delicous. unfortunately, rhubarb season has passed here and i didn’t mange to get any in the freezer. is there another fruit that you think might work well?? perhaps blueberries or peaches with a bit less sugar? (or even a combination)

    Hi, Jacquie. I think raspberries and peaches would be pretty darn yummy. And yes, I’d cut the sugar down by 1/4 cup in that circumstance. Susan

    Reply
  13. Julia

    Hi, Susan–Can you clarify what you mean by small pearl tapioca vs.
    Minute Tapioca (TM)? They’re not the same.

    The small pearl tapioca I get in the local Asian markets are bigger than the Minute Tapioca (TM) that I used to make tapioca pudding with decades
    ago. The small pearls are about 1 mm diameter and need to be soaked a
    while before using–they’re not “instant”.

    (“Large” pearl tapioca are those monstrous bubbles used in the
    Asian tapioca drinks that are popular here in CA, maybe .25 inch
    diameter dry and they swell up when immersed.)
    Julia: I used Minute Tapioca; I’ll double check my copy because if I said “small pearl” that was an error. Susan

    My bad, Julia – I added that “small pearl” trying to clarify what kind of tapioca. Sorry, Susan! PJH

    Reply
  14. elianna

    OMG…the final dish looks SOOOOOO awesome!!!! Compared to the first try-wow! The final results look like something you spent hours over…totally professional!
    You’re someone right after my own heart-I’m always working “backwards”; taking the “convenient” recipes and re-creating from scratch.
    Thanks & I can’t WAIT to make this! I just don’t like the work involved in strawberry-rhubarb pie so I almost never make it-but this is going right into my “make ASAP” pile! :)

    Elianna: Amazing what a quick squeeze from the pastry bag and a little sparkling sugar can do, isn’t it? I’m so glad I’ve given you a new dessert for your repertoire ;-) Susan

    Reply
  15. Tammy

    I haven’t seen the strawberry pie recipe mentioned, (try Google?) but perhaps puree some strawberries with sugar and use Knox gelatin instead of Jello. I make Knox blocks with various juices, and they taste good. I don’t like Jello-flavored stuff, either.

    Reply
  16. Bob

    Wonderful! Would you suggest any changes to the recipe or steps if starting with frozen rhubarb? Thanks. What a good idea to use rhubarb! I would mix the thawed rhubarb with confectioners’ sugar to taste. Molly@KAF

    Reply
  17. Sharon

    A co-worker gave me a bag of her parents home-grown rhubarb on Friday. That night I made this recipe and, boy, did it turn out wonderful!
    On Saturday, I took the rest of the pie with me and my siblings to visit our only living 88 year old aunt and her two daughters. After a lovely dinner, we had the rest of the pie for our dessert. Needless to say, it really hit the spot and we all enjoyed it. And I gave all the credit to King Arthur Flour for this wonderful recipe. Oh, and there’s another rhubarb pie in the oven right now! Thank you, KAF!

    Reply
  18. Lucy Price

    This was my Father’s Day surprise for my 92-years-young dad. He and I love rhubarb and i baked them in individual servings. So i am going to share a trick about individual servings. i have to carry things by car, to my dad’s, family, work and always wanted to keep things neat. So i have been using 1-cup wide mouth jam jars. They are easy to portion. 50 grams(1 sm. handful) of rhubarb and a 2 oz scoop of strawberries w/topping piped on. After baking, i cool them and cover with a regular jam jar lid and ring. they look charming and make perfect size servings for desserts. I also do this for custards. Anything you usually make in a big pan, i do individually. I also took 1/4 cup of the flour and replaced in with “chopped” quick cooking oats that i toasted in the oven to perk up the nutty flavor. i added a hint of ginger and cinnamon also. Gave away a small serving dish – 2 servings to neighbors who did not have family with them…my grandkids loved it too. Thanks for all the work you did to make the recipe so great!

    Reply
  19. Joan Auclair

    On a similar note, I’ve got a recipe for sugar cookies that calls for a box of vanilla pudding mix (not instant). I’m wondering what I can use instead–the only thing in the list of ingredients that leaps out at me is corn starch. Do you know whether adding corn starch would have the same effect on cookies that pudding mix does, since the rest of the ingredients are already called for in the recipe?

    Well, there’s gelatin in there too, and sugar… I’d guess you could sub cornstarch and sugar and vanilla? PJH

    Reply
  20. Julie Scott

    Wow, and I thought I was the only one who changed recipes from “easy & convenient” back to wholesome goodness from scratch. I’m going to have to bookmark this page. :) I also have a similar rhubarb upside down cake recipe (which calls for mixing the cake ingredients together and pouring over the rhubarb, jello and mini *marshmallows*). Will have to try this version! (I’d use 1/2 whole wheat flour too.)

    Reply
  21. Holly

    Thanks for the new and revised recipe.

    I love your sense of humor as you write. I think we may have the same sense of humor :-)

    I have used cherries with rhubarb instead of strawberries, and they are a nice combination.

    Reply
  22. Amanda

    I’m not a huge fan of using cake mixes either, for the same reason, all those long words I can’t pronounce on the label. :-o Although, every once in a while I use them for sheer convenience. I do LOVE these make overs! Looking forward to more :)

    Reply
  23. lynette

    i think that strawberry pie is like what they serve at big boy restaurants up north, i never did care for it. i like it made like homemade cherry pie, thickened with cornstarch and baked in the oven. you can do rubarb in it also

    Reply

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