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.


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,


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.


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.


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


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


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


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.


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,


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


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.


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.


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:

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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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

How was it?


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

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


Next, a generous sprinkle of sparkling sugar


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


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.


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


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

Filed Under:
Susan Reid
The Author

About Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

View all posts by Susan Reid