rhubarb and cobblers

Living Within, February 2017

A bit of comfort and love might not go amiss this month; your kitchen may be a haven of tranquility, but I am not hermetically sealed from newsfeeds in mine, and it feels like there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.  So in search of the sweet, the soothing, the not too bad to look at but not out to impress either, or perhaps just a signifier that the rhythms of the world are still familiar and reliable in at least some parts of the landscape, this may be the perfect moment to pair the prettiness of pink forced February rhubarb and a little sugar coating with the glory of a name we can shout at the telly should the need arise.  I am talking, of course, about the family of deserts know as cobblers. Their origins an apparent mystery, but as far as I can discover, a good old-fashioned US import - and a very welcome one too - with plenty of scope regarding how it came about its moniker; cobbled together, cobble stones, cobblers awls, … I could keep going.

But here’s the “how to …”, for those who are still with me.  Grab some sticks of pink or red rhubarb, 6 or 7 should do.  Wash and cut into short lengths then toss together with 3 tablespoons of plain flour and about 150g caster sugar (this will be quite sweet - you can add a little less if you prefer your tastes tart).  Leave to macerate while you get on and do the rest (the rhubarb will start to give off a little juice and to work with the sugar while you do).  

Turn on your oven and pre-heat to 180ºC  (or equivalents).  

For the dough/biscuit topping: In a large bowl, weigh out 180g plain flour, add a pinch of salt, 4 teaspoons of caster sugar, and 2 teaspoons of baking powder - mix together with a fork or a whisk until the all the ingredients are blended roughly evenly.  

Cut 80g cold butter into small cubes; toss into the flour and then, using only fingertips, squeeze the butter with the flour (like you would for pastry, keeping your actions light and your hands high out of the bowl), just until the butter and flour looks a bit like breadcrumbs.  Don’t work too hard, don’t allow the butter to get hot and bothered, keep everything as light and airy as possible.  Now add in about 180ml of fluid cream or buttermilk - any cream will do, but a sour cream will help these biscuits (as they are known in the US - we would think of them more like little dumplings or scones) to have a nice rise - some acid in the mix helping the baking powder do it’s job.  Mix the cream through the flour and butter using a knife, or a pastry blender, or lightly use the fingers of one hand - until the mix just adheres as a shaggy dough (don’t overwork it, and it doesn’t matter one bit if the mix looks a bit rough around its edges - or even all over, so long as, broadly speaking, its centre will hold.)

Take the rhubarb and toss once again with the sugar and flour (so that it is all evenly coated) and place in an oven-proof pie or gratin dish that is of a size to allow the rhubarb to form a generous layer.  Then you can either take generous dollops of the dough and just dot them all over the top, or pat or roll the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface to a nice proud inch or so in height, and cut out small scone like shapes - being careful not to twist the dough as you remove the cutter or to overwork anything.  I cut mine in fluted heart shapes - although the shape, once they are cooked, is always going to be a little fuzzy, so I wouldn’t worry too much about how you put these together.

Place the biscuits on top of the rhubarb - the biscuits should not touch each other, and can form any pattern that you like, bearing in mind that they will expand on cooking and may join up a little as they do so.  From here they whole dish goes straight into the oven - you can brush the tops of the dough with a little more cream and sprinkle with a little sugar first if you want to help the colour develop to its full potential, but you don’t have to.

Bake on top of a baking sheet (don’t be surprised if the juices bubble over the edges of the dish if you have filled anywhere near to the top - and these bubbled over juices will, if your oven is left undefended by said baking sheet, otherwise stick to the bottom of your oven!).  The cobbler should be done - golden, bubbling, looking and smelling divine - in about 40 minutes, but start checking after about 30.

Eat while not piping hot, but at least properly warm, and I like mine with a dollop or a drizzle of cream on top.


Ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret
— a shoemaker should not judge beyond the sandal (lit.) Pliny the Elder
Cobbler stick to your last
— English Phrase