My favorite thing about family gatherings wasn’t my family. I mean, they were all right, as far as that goes. I had a bevy of great-aunts and one great-uncle, Gary, who taught me how to crack my knuckles, to my parents’ continued annoyance. “Stop cracking your knuckles! You’ll get arthritis and end up with giant knuckles just like your uncle!” was my parents’ oft-repeated refrain. (For the record, cracking your knuckles will not give you arthritis, and besides, large knuckles are to be envied, not avoided.)
Gary’s wife, my Great-aunt Velma, was legendary for her cookies, which she brought to every holiday party on a large, densely packed platter. This platter was the whole point of family get-togethers, like pennies from heaven, if pennies were cookies and heaven was Velma’s kitchen in her old house off Lieser Road. The platter contained a mind-boggling assortment of bite-sized drops, cut-outs, balls and bars, small enough so that you could sample many kinds and still want to taste a few more. Velma must have spent two or three days baking to achieve such an impressive variety.
Some folks went for the brownie bites. Others liked the pecan sandies. Me? My eternal favorite was the rhubarb square. When I first tried one, I was baffled by the lovely sweet-tart taste. I just couldn’t identify the flavor. I timidly sidled up to Aunt Velma, who was famously cagey about revealing her ingredients, and asked her what they were. When she said rhubarb, I felt a sudden shift in my taste landscape. Everyone in my family grew rhubarb in their gardens, but we never seemed to eat it. Who knew rhubarb could be so good?
I confess that I don’t have Aunt Velma’s rhubarb cookie recipe. She never shared any of her cookie recipes with anyone; as far as I know, all her cookie magic went with her to the afterlife, where she is surely baking cookies for the heavenly hosts. However, since I just planted some rhubarb in my own garden and it is, after all, peak rhubarb season, I thought I’d make some rhubarb cookies in homage to my Aunt Velma.
I found plenty of recipes for oat-topped rhubarb crumble bars or rhubarb shortbread bars, but I was looking for something more cookielike: dense but soft squares with chunks of rhubarb and aromatic spices. I was inspired by a recipe with ingredients and pictures that looked about right, but what I ended up with is more like a coffeecake. It’s not really cookies — I wouldn’t put this into any cookie jar — but I cut it into little squares in an attempt to make it seem more like Aunt Velma’s rhubarb treats. I call them “cakies.” It doesn’t matter whether you eat this baked delight with your fingers or a fork, or whether you carve it into tetrahedrons and call it Whopdinging Snargles, it’s absolutely, inarguably delicious.
Sour Cream Rhubarb Streusel Cakies
Set the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Next, cream together 1½ cups packed brown sugar, 1/4 cup butter (half a stick), ¼ cup vegetable oil and 1 egg. Blend in 1 cup of sour cream or Greek yogurt. Sift 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt directly into wet ingredients and stir until smooth. Stir in 2 cups of rhubarb. Pour mixture into baking dish. For the topping, combine ½ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ginger, 2 tablespoons softened butter and 1/2 cup very finely chopped rhubarb. The moisture in the rhubarb will result in a somewhat gooey topping, but never mind that — spread it as evenly as you can across the batter. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool slightly then cut into squares and dust with powdered sugar. Enjoy them while they’re still a little warm or have a square the next morning with your coffee.
There are a couple variations on these bars that might encourage you to make them a few times, each time with a new twist. Instead of plain sour cream or plain yogurt, try strawberry yogurt. In place of the ½ cup finely chopped rhubarb in the crumble topping, use ½ cup finely chopped fresh strawberries or even freeze-dried strawberry bits. You could skip the fruit in the topping altogether and use ½ cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans for nutty rhubarb bars. Apples and rhubarb are also a lovely combination — try it with half chopped apple, half chopped rhubarb. When you have a bite, think fondly of my Aunt Velma in her apron, standing in her sunny kitchen, stirring a big bowl of cookie batter. But please don’t ask her for the recipe.