When the day begins a few hours before awakening with the trill of a happy bird, blue skies and warm breezes must be waiting to greet you. The very thought triggers the sheer joy of spring and another season to enjoy and appreciate in a different way. Instead of shoveling snow, thoughts shift to planting flowers and vegetable gardens while rhubarb plants seem to sprout overnight meaning there are rhubarb desserts to make as soon as possible.

Although rhubarb, in all of its green leafy beauty, is taken for granted by many, there’s so much more to learn about it. For me, I merely need the name of the reader who so kindly shared five of her favorite rhubarb recipes without a name attached.

According to Theresa Millang’s “The Joy of Rhubarb” cookbook, rhubarb is not a fruit, but a vegetable and Ben Franklin brought seeds for to this country in 1772. It wasn’t remotely popular until the early 1880s when it was used to make pies and wine. By the mid-1900s, its popularity had exploded with the plant being found in most neighborhood gardens.

How well I remember being a youngster sitting in Daddy’s garden with a salt shaker in hand and sprinkling a freshly pulled rhubarb stalk assuming if it was good enough for a green apple, why not a green rhubarb stalk as well. One bite was enough. I learned after supper when rhubarb pie was served how much better it tasted using sugar and that’s the reason today that I have four healthy rhubarb plants in my own garden plus one that deserves a trophy.

As a perennial, rhubarb needs a cold season to flourish. While rhubarb stalks are rich in vitamin C, dietary fiber and calcium, their beautiful leaves are laced with oxalic acid and are poisonous. To learn so much more, visit a garden center for more information about planting root divisions from a neighbor or friend, then wait a year before pulling stalks to use in recipes.

Here are some favorite rhubarb recipes from the reader whose name is missing. The first recipe was found in the Centennial Cookbook from Zion Lutheran Church in Mitchell, SD, and was submitted by Mildred Jerke. The reader confesses that during her travels, when most people buy trinkets, she searches for local cookbooks and here is a recipe that her grandchildren “just love.” When she makes it for adults, vodka is added.

Rhubarb slush

8 cups chopped rhubarb

8 cups water

3 cups sugar

½ cup lemon juice, fresh or bottled

6-ounce package of strawberry JELL-O (see note)

2 cups vodka, optional

White soda such as Sprite for serving

Cook rhubarb, water and sugar until very mushy, about 15-20 minutes; put through a strainer to separate pulp from juice. To the juice, add ½ cup lemon juice and the package of strawberry JELL-O (and optional vodka). Stir well and freeze. To serve the beverage, take frozen rhubarb juice out of the freezer and scoop into glasses until half full before filling with 7-UP or Sprite. Stir and enjoy.

Note: Add another 6-ounce package of strawberry JELL-O to the pulp and use as a sauce.

The reader describes this cake as “out-of-this-world delicious!” and has been on file since the 1980s when Sandy Krase, a church member, made it for one of their church potluck picnic dinners.

Easy rhubarb cake

1 box any regular size yellow cake mix

4 cups rhubarb, cut in ½-inch pieces

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup heavy cream (have used fat free half and half or even whole milk instead)

Mix cake according to directions on the box. Pour into a 9x13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle rhubarb evenly over top of cake, then sprinkle sugar evenly over the rhubarb. Pour cream over top of all. DO NOT STIR. While it bakes, the cake rises to the top and a delicious custard forms at the bottom. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes or until cake tests done when a toothpick is inserted in the middle. Please check after 30 minutes and if it is browning too much, turn oven down to 350 degrees for the last 15 minutes.

This is the reader’s husband’s favorite rhubarb salad because it is creamy. The recipe was discovered in a “Recipes to Warm the Heart” cookbook and was submitted by Mae House and Bonnie Brooks from Osseo, Minnesota.

Rhubarb salad

3 cups chopped rhubarb

¼ to ¾ cup sugar (depends on sweetness of rhubarb)

½ cup water

3 ounce package strawberry JELL-O

3 ounce package instant vanilla pudding

1 ½ cups milk

4 ounces Cool Whip

Cook chopped rhubarb, sugar and water into a sauce. Add strawberry JELL-O and cool, but do not set. Mix vanilla pudding, milk and Cool Whip together and add to the cooled rhubarb mixture. Chill for several hours before serving.

Hopefully, the reader’s identity will be revealed next week.

Life is filled with unexpected and unexplained things and, lo and behold, while featuring rhubarb in this column, a letter dated June 3, 1993 suddenly appeared with an original rhubarb recipe from Pamela Johns in Tomah who was creating something new to enter in the State Journal cooking contest 26 years ago. I have no answer as to where it has been hiding, but here it is, just in time to appear with other favorite rhubarb recipes.

Cheesy rhubarb squares

1 cup flour

2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup butter

1 cup oatmeal

2 cups diced rhubarb

½ cup sugar

8 ounces cream cheese

⅓ cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir together 1 cup flour and 2 tablespoons sugar. Cut in with pastry blender ½ cup butter until fine. Stir in 1 cup oatmeal. Set aside ½ cup of this mixture. Spread the rest evenly in bottom of a 9x13 pan. Stir together 2 cups diced rhubarb and ½ cup sugar. Spread evenly over crust. Soften cream cheese slightly and beat together with ⅓ cup sugar, 1 egg, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Dot and blend on top of rhubarb. Take ½ cup of flour mixture set aside and sprinkle over top of cream cheese mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve warm or cooled and tastes great either way.

One final rhubarb recipe appeared in my own 1987 copy of “With Great Gusto” compiled by the Junior League of Youngstown, Ohio. We must have more rhubarb plants growing in Wisconsin than Ohio since there was only one rhubarb recipe included in their wonderful 400 page hometown cookbook.

Rhubarb crisp

4 cups rhubarb (about 1 ¼ pounds) cut into 1-inch pieces

¾ cup sugar

2 tablespoons Minute Tapioca

½ teaspoon salt

11-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained

Topping:

1 cup oats

¼ cup flour

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup butter

Combine rhubarb, sugar, tapioca, and salt; toss lightly to mix. Let stand for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add oranges and mix lightly. Place in ungreased 8-inch pan. In separate bowl, mix oats, flour, brown sugar and butter. Sprinkle over top. Bake, uncovered, at 350-375 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Serve warm. Serves 4 to 6

Recent request: Desserts without dairy

Contact the Cooks’ Exchange in care of the Wisconsin State Journal, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI, 53708 or by email at greenbush4@aol.com.

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