Cookbook author David Bonom recalls how an annual road trip through Amish country led to family bonding and a beloved desert.
My mother baked twice a year: her apple pie at Thanksgiving, and then when the crocuses pepper out of the ground in the spring, she's make her rhubarb-apple crisp.
One day every year, seemingly out of the blue, Mom would announce that we were heading to Amish country for the farmers market on the weekend. On the drive there, we'd play games: The first of us to spot an Amish person got a quarter, and 50 cents went to the first horse and buggy sighting.
The minute we arrived at the market, my mother would make a beeline for the rhubarb. She would pick only the stalks that were thick and deep red, with crisp, green, chard-like leaves. It didn't seem to matter to her that by the time we got home, the leaves would be faded and limp.
The morning after our outing, our "work" would begin. We'd sit around the table and nod our heads as my mother—every year—explained the leaves were poisonous as she trimmed them off. With her hand guiding mine, we would cut the stalks into thick slices that we'd toss into a big white bowl along with peeled, sliced McIntosh apples, lots of sugar, and a little flour. (In the ensuing years I learned that McIntosh are not the best baking apples, but they were my mother's favorite and the only type she ever used to make her crisp.)
My favorite part was making the topping. It was simple: flour, sugar, and margarine. (My mother was a Depression-era baby, so butter was, even in the 1970s, a luxury not to be "wasted" in a baked good.) As the baby of the family, I got the best job: mushing the topping into clumps to scatter over the crisp before it went in the oven.
Then we would wait, and the intoxicating, sweet smell of rhubarb, apples, and sugar filled the house. It always felt like a torturous eternity until the crisp not only baked but was also cool enough for me to take that first spoonful.
My mother has been gone many years now, but I carry on her rite of spring with my own children. And while I think of her every year as we sit around our table trimming the stalks (and yes, I always remind the kids the leaves are poisonous), I have to admit to tweaking her recipes. I use Golden Delicious or Honeycrisp apples, which hold their shape and offer better apple flavor when cooked; I put oats in the topping for texture, and I use brown sugar for deeper flavor. Oh—and I got rid of the margarine (sorry, Mom!) and replaced it with just enough butter to hold the topping together.
But one thing will never change: I still use the first rhubarb of spring from the farmers market, and, like my mother, I choose only stalks with bright, lively leaves—even if they might wilt by the time I bring them home. Because sometimes cooking is about tradition more than logic—and our family thinks tradition tastes better.
Mom's Rhubarb Apple Crisp
View Recipe: Mom's Rhubarb Apple Crisp
Honeycrisp and Golden Delicious apples hold their shape well and won't get too mushy after baking. Brown sugar lends deep molasses flavor in the topping. Rhubarb's bracingly tart flavor pairs perfectly with sweet fruit in crisps and pies.