Rah, Rah, Rhubarb!

If rhubarb were playing on a team, would anyone actually cheer for it? A sad, unloved vegetable with an identity crisis, rhubarb is always paired up with the show-stealing strawberry, smothered by sweetness, and thrown into the game more as an afterthought than a star. You’d think that after years of strawberry-rhubarb pies and strawberry-rhubarb crumbles, more bakers would take a chance on letting the red stalks stand alone for once, but no, perish the thought! Rhubarb is bitter, unpalatable, and unable to carry a proper dessert without help from something more flavorful. In fact, this silent player is hardly even a staple for standard grocery stores. Upon asking a produce department worker if they had any early season rhubarb yet, I was looked at as if I had requested a vegan angel food cake. Forget about having never heard of it, this person (who specializes in fresh fruits and vegetables, mind you) couldn’t even decipher what I was saying. Rubbage? Rubar? Well, I’ll take that as a “no,” then.

But rhubarb isn’t some awful ingredient to be either avoided or covered up, like an embarrassing pet stain on the living room carpet. When treated with respect, it makes for perfectly delicious desserts, as is evidenced by these bright, springy cupcakes. Luck would have it that I eventually found a bag of frozen rhubarb, of all things, and so I set right to work redeeming this misunderstood plant.

Topped off with a simple vanilla bean frosting so as not to take over and cover that delicate rhubarb flavor, these little numbers are further beautified by candied violets. Incredibly hard to find and even harder to transport intact, I had been saving up these precious edibles for quite some time now, so it’s a good thing they’re well-preserved by sugar. Such an ornate garnish is far from necessary though- The rhubarb really does sell these treats all by itself.

Rhubarb Cupcakes

2 Cups Chopped Rhubarb, Fresh or Frozen and Thawed
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Cup Orange Juice
1/3 Cup Canola Oil
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Vanilla Bean Frosting:

1 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
4 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 – 2 Tablespoons Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Paste or Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and line 14 cupcake tins with decorative papers. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan over moderate heat, combine the rhubarb, sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Let stew, stirring periodically, for about 10 – 15 minutes, until the rhubarb becomes so tender that it pretty much falls apart. If necessary, mash it lightly with your spatula to help it break down. Allow the rhubarb to cool for 15 minute before proceeding.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda. Stir the orange juice, oil, and vanilla into the rhubarb mixture, and then add all of those liquids into the bowl of flour. Stir with a wide spatula just until the batter comes together smoothly; a few small lumps remaining are no reason for alarm. Just be sure not to over-mix, or you’ll create a tough cake.

Dole out the batter equally between your prepared cupcake tins, and slide them into the oven. Bake for 18 minutes, until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean. Let cool completely before applying the frosting.

For the frosting, throw room temperature margarine into your mixer, and beat thoroughly until softened. Add in the confectioner’s sugar and start mixing on a low speed to prevent the dry goods from flying out of the work bowl. Add in the vanilla paste or extract, and slowly drizzle in the non-dairy milk, until the frosting reaches a smooth but still firm consistency. Whip on high speed for about 5 minutes until fluffy. Pipe or spread on cupcakes as desired.

Makes 14 Cupcakes

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