There are many situations that can drive us around the bend here at the Spy Test Kitchens. We are only human, after all, except for Luke the wonder dog, who is sanguine and tolerant of almost anything but a knock on the door, or a passing UPS truck. We like simple, reliable and tasty. We do not like recipes that call for extraordinary ingredients that can only be found in exotic Middle Earth market stalls one week out of the year, or in haute Brooklyn organic food co-ops. Our time is valuable, and who wants to waste it searching for obscure and expensive ingredients? Not us.
That’s why I was super pleased to find this recipe for rhubarb scones on the Food52 website. I had gone off on an internet stroll, looking for something timely and spring-y for this week’s column. I like rhubarb. It reminds me of spring, and makes me think about strawberries and cream and picnics and garden parties I have only read about. Which leads to clotted cream and scones and a long ago tea I had with a dear chum in a churchyard in England. So much of food prep is thinking of connections, and remembering ideal meals and happy times.
What is best about this recipe, not to diminish the final product, is that it is highly adaptable. What? Your grocery store doesn’t have rhubarb? Rhubarb hasn’t ripened yet in your area, so there isn’t any at the farmers’ market? Don’t panic – substitute! The comments on this recipe in Food52 (which you should always read – they can be highly amusing and just as informative as the actual recipe) are loaded with helpful suggestions. Use strawberries! Use peaches! Use strawberry jam! Try frozen rhubarb – not ideal given our penchant for fresh and local foods, but timely, considering the world of almost-post-COVID and supply chain problems. We are baking the scones, after all, which transforms the fruit. We can wait until June to decorate these scones with tiny fresh strawberries and raspberries. Right now we need some comfort food, and we need it fast.
We have a couple of grocery store choices: Reliable Foods, the one right around the corner that is the most convenient, but it only has basic fruits and vegetables, rarely anything as esoteric as a shallot, or broccolini. And the cheap white wine is never on sale. Or we can go to the Fancy Foods, a whole two miles away, that almost always has broccolini and shallots, cheap white wine specials and decent French bread. But every other price tag in the store is staggeringly high. Thus we have discovered the importance of a shopping list for each store. For Food52’s Naughty Scones I can nip quickly into Fancy Foods for the rhubarb, and scurry past the wine sale. Everything else can be had for less at Reliable Foods.
There is an unexpected special ingredient, vanilla sugar, in this recipe. Most of the Food52 cooks seem undaunted by its inclusion and have just plowed on making their own. Prepared and bottled, it is available in some specialty stores, or you can follow this recipe and have it on hand for your own spontaneous scone prep: https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/homemade-vanilla-sugar/
I might also poke around our Fancy Foods for some hideously expensive bottled clotted cream or Devon cream. I know homemade whipped cream is a good all-American substitute, but sometimes a daydream deserves a little boost.
Martha has a very posh rhubarb dessert, if you happen upon a great stash of rhubarb: https://www.marthastewart.com/355798/rhubarb-raspberry-pavlova?
Just in time for Passover, you can try this rhubarb compote with matzo streusel: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/strawberry-rhubarb-compote-with-matzo-streusel-topping-109345
Maybe you want to have coffee instead of tea? Here is a Brooklyn coffee cake recipe that you can try. There is nothing in it that can’t be found at our less-than-fancy grocery store: https://www.thebrooklyncook.com/strawberry-rhubarb-coffee-cake/
And you can channel the 1950s with a rhubarb upside down cake with help from Betty Crocker. Sometimes a cake mix is worth it! https://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/strawberry-rhubarb-upside-down-cake/78a646ac-6790-45c2-b30f-a45bdb10dbda
Start looking for fresh local fruits for your own tea party. The Chestertown Farmers’ Market is open on Saturdays, and the Easton, St. Michaels and Cambridge markets open soon.
“Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.”
― Alice Walker