In A Rhubarb

Rhubarb Thumbprint Cookies

Rhubarb Thumbprint Cookies

So, this past weekend I made Rhubarb Jelly. Yes, I know: I lead an exciting life, and you’re living vicariously through me.

I’ll get to the specifics in a moment, but for now I need to explain that I ended up with a quart of jelly. I was wondering what to do with that much jelly – even several slices of toast every morning, and many cups of yogurt won’t make a dent in it. A friend recommended that I pour it into little jelly jars and give it to away at a friend’s upcoming birthday party.

Now, putting myself into my friends’ various forms of footwear for a moment, I can’t help but worry about my poor friend Mikey who is taking this whole food blogging “thing” too seriously. Did he really give everyone little jars of jelly? And what kind was it? Rhubarb??

(Okay, now I’m “me” again.) So, no little jars of jelly. I‘ll explain why I am awash in Rhubarb Jelly. I was walking through the market and saw Rhubarb. It is the first of the season, and its bright blushing glow drew my attention. I have this strange fear of the stuff. After all, it looks like celery over which a Wicked Witch has cast a spell. To top it off, you really can’t eat the stuff unless it is cooked, and to make matters worse, its leaves are poisonous.

Angry celery?

Angry celery?

All of which begs the question (in my mind, anyway): who was the first person who saw this stuff growing and decided, “Mmmmm, looks good. I think I’ll make a Strawberry and “What-Ever-That-Stuff-Is” Crisp?” I see all sorts of questionable greens growing, but my mind doesn’t make the leap to eating them. (This also makes me worry about the first person who saw Poison Ivy growing and decided to use it in a salad. This itchy scene was never documented, but I figure the same trial and error that landed me with a quart of Rhubarb Jelly also taught us to steer clear of the shiny green leaves.)

I had never made Rhubarb Jelly, but jelly is pretty simple to make. When I was a kid I remember an Aunt making jelly, but that was just the beginning. There was also the whole canning process for “putting the jelly up.” This involved boiling the mason jars, their lids and seals, and topping the filled jars with paraffin wax before closing.

I had a much smaller-scale project in mind, figuring I’d buy a few stalks of rhubarb and make enough jelly to last a few days. Lesson learned: a little rhubarb goes a long way. And the stuff isn’t cheap: at $6.99 per pound its blushing red color brought to mind precious gems like rubies.

Why jelly? Because I’ve made Rhubarb Crisps and wanted to expand my repertoire. I was also curious to see if I could answer one simple question: “What does rhubarb taste like?”

My answer: a little grassy. A hint of soapy bitterness. Very tart.  Kind of herbal in a clean kind of way. Add enough sugar and it is very sweet.

If you’ve never made jelly it’s not an understatement to declare that if you can boil water you can make jelly.

This brings us back to my original question: what should I do with all that jelly? My technique to force an answer was to stand in my kitchen and stare at the pan of cooling jelly for several minutes as if divining from a steaming ruby-tinted crystal ball.

SpryCookbookWebMaybe it was the steam or perhaps the concentrated sugar vapors, but most certainly it was the hot, jammy, fruity, smell. The latter brought me back to the days when my Mom would bake what she called “Spry Cookies.” Spry doesn’t refer to how you’ll feel when you eat the cookies; rather it refers to a long-ago departed brand of vegetable shortening. Mom’s cookies were basically a thumbprint cookie made with Spry instead of butter, and filled with the jam or jelly of her choice. (Actually I remember my Mom using Crisco, which used to confuse little me.)

The tough part is that Mom’s recipe was somehow lost in the march of time. But you and I both know that you can find anything on the internet. Sure enough a search for Spry on eBay yielded the little 1955 promotional cookbook pictured here. (It would have been a little scary to find someone selling cans of Spry, which Lever Brothers stopped making back in the 1960’s. Scary, yes. Surprising, no.)

The cookies I made, lovingly dotted with my home-made Rhubarb jelly, are not quite like my Mom’s. These are a bit cakeier, but otherwise their home-made, rather simple quality speak Grandma and picnics, and summer barbecues. They are correct in spirit if not in accuracy.

My Mom shuddered a bit when I mentioned Spry, reflecting that back in the day no one knew about trans-fats, and that people even thought it was a healthy alternative to the lard that was used before.

The good news is that nowadays we really do have healthier shortening. The brand I use (Earth Balance) is made with non-hydrogenated oils, and contains no trans-fats. (I’m not saying it is health food.)

In the meantime, dive in: the jelly’s fine.


Click here for my recipes for Rhubarb Jelly and “Spry” Cookies.


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