Hand-Me-Down Muffins, Share-Worthy Curd

Kim Severson’s lovely and poignant Mother’s Day piece in last week’s Food Section sent me sorting through my stash of handwritten, handed-down recipes for one of my favorite fruit-spread vehicles, my mom’s Vanilla Muffins.

Fragrant, moist, and simple, these were not muffins you studded with fruit; these were muffins you smeared with fruit.

With, say, Aunt Harriet‘s peach butter, made with peaches from the family orchard outside Carbondale. Or with chopped-cherry jam, from giant tins of sour cherries procured alternately from the west (Door County) and east (Traverse City) sides of up-north Lake Michigan. Or with apple butter, using Superior-breeze-crisped apples from Bayfield. Or with straight-up strawberry jam, whose flats of berries came from a U-Pick farm somewhere between Portage and Wausau.

For sure, our station wagon logged a lot of midwest miles each summer, but we didn’t have to travel so far for our fruit in early spring—just 30 feet or so across the driveway. Giant, elephant ears of rhubarb leaves dominated a good-sized strip of our backyard.

I’ve followed suit, naturally. My five-year-old crowns are now finally thriving (sorry, fig tree), and I’ve pulled three cuttings already this spring.

Pro tip from the ’70s: Rhubarb leaves can double as bases in your next backyard Wiffle Ball game.

With a big bundle in Wednesday’s CSA sharebox, I figured I had enough to spare for another batch of curd—a perfect foil for the muffins.

Rhubarb Curd

My dad still claims that any use of rhubarb other than pie is a flat-out misuse of rhubarb. If I can figure out how to transport some of this on the plane home at the end of the month, I hope to win him over. 

Gramma's Rhubarb Pie
Here you go, Pop. Gramma’s pie, in her own careful, extra-fine pen. That overstuffed, crusty, black binder is a treasure.

Makes about a half-pint (one cup) of curd.

  • 6 oz chopped rhubarb (a heaping cup of 1/2-inch pieces—about 3-4 big stalks)
  • 1/2 vanilla bean (optional)
  • 1 tbsp fresh orange or lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg plus 3 yolks
  • 4 tbsp butter, cut into 6-8 pieces
  • a tiny pinch of salt

In a small saucepan, cover the rhubarb with water by about a half inch. Split the vanilla bean (if you’re using it), scrape out the seeds, and add both the pod and the seeds to the pan. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the rhubarb is quite soft and mushy.

Strain through a chinois or fine-mesh strainer. You should now have around 2/3-3/4 cup of juice. Pour the juice back into the saucepan, and reduce it a bit to concentrate the flavors. I ended up with about a half a cup.

Cool, and add the citrus juice.

Even juice that pink was no match for the bright orange of farm-fresh egg yolks, so this batch, once finished, was barely blushing.

Meanwhile, set a pot of water to boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. In a stainless-steel or glass bowl that’ll rest safely atop the water pot, whisk together the sugar and eggs. Stream in the citrus-laced rhubarb juice, whisking to incorporate thoroughly. Set the bowl over the water bath. Whisking constantly, cook until the mixture resembles a loose pudding (it should pretty thickly coat the back of a wooden spoon).

Remove the bowl from heat, and rest it on a folded kitchen towel.

I get a completely smooth curd about 75% of the time. Not this time, though. If you see any cooked bits of egg in the curd, strain it once more before you add the butter.

Add the pinch of salt, then whisk in the butter, one pat at a time, making sure it fully melts before you move on to the next piece.

Spoon the curd into a clean glass jar, let cool, then cover and refrigerate at least a couple hours before serving. It’ll keep for a week or two, but you’ll never have it that long.

All Set
Nice and firm after three hours in the fridge.

A wee jar of curd is a stunner to share. Great for gifting. Just note that it’s easier to work in smaller batches. Tripling this recipe is fine, but I tried a quadruple recently, in preparation for a Philly Food Swap, and I had trouble getting a solid set.

Vanilla Muffins
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/c cup butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract

Heat oven to 400º. Grease a 12-muffin tin or prepare paper or silicone muffin cups.

In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients. In another bowl, whisk together all the wet ingredients. Combine, and mix until just blended.

Bake 18-20 minutes, until lightly browned on top.

Serve warm, with a good butter and/or your favorite fruit spread.

Want to try a cool Plan B? Fill the muffin cups one-third full, spoon in a dollop of curd, and then top off with more batter.

A spoonful of curd baked right in infuses the whole muffin with gooey, sweet-tart goodness. This was Sheila’s favorite version.

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