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Awake at the Whisk: Grandma Betty’s Famous Rhubarb Pinwheels

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Grandma Betty’s Famous Rhubarb Pinwheels

Do you have that one family recipe that you guard with your life? The one that everyone begs you for, but you’re just not willing to give up? Well, this is one such family recipe of mine. My mom made it, my grandma made it, and my great-grandma made it. In fact, this is the recipe that best defines my kitchen memories. I almost named my blog after this recipe. It means that much to me.
This recipe was passed on to me when I first left home. Grandma wrote it on a slip of scrap paper and mailed it to me while I was living in Denmark as an exchange student. I made it for my host families, who immediately begged me for the recipe. It’s a one-of-a kind. It’s the best rhubarb recipe there is, using almost five cups of chopped rhubarb. It has everything a great dessert needs: it’s served warm; it’s covered in a rich sauce; the pinwheel dough is moist and comforting; and it pairs wonderfully with vanilla ice cream. It's tangy, sweet, and like the vegetable that gives it its name, utterly unique.

If I gave you the recipe as my grandma gave it to me, I doubt you’d have much luck. The instructions reflect the hands-on learning that’s associated with a family recipe. For example, she lists all the pinwheel ingredients, and the directions simply state, “Mix in order given. This is the dough.” Yet, I had to call home to ask whether the butter was cut in like scone batter, or blended like cookie batter.

Of course, like everything I do, I have altered her recipe ever so subtly to provide a slightly healthier version of this luscious dessert. I have decreased the amount of sugar, added some extra spice, and added wheat flour. The wheat flour makes a slightly chewier pinwheel, but I think only Grandma will notice.

Lucky, lucky, lucky you! I am not only sharing our family’s most treasured recipe with you, but I have also rewritten it so that you will understand the instructions clearly. When you make this, I only ask that you give my grandma credit!

Grandma Betty’s Famous Rhubarb Pinwheels
4 cups water
3 cups organic sugar
1 cup diced rhubarb (1/2-inch pieces)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 Tablespoons organic sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ cup cold butter
1 scant cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups diced rhubarb (½-inch pieces)
1/3 scant cup sugar
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ginger

Farmers' Market Fare: whole wheat flour, butter
Fresh from My Garden: rhubarb
Local California Ingredients: buttermilk
Non-local Supermarket Ingredients: sugar, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, combine water, 3 cups sugar, and 1 cup diced rhubarb. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Then remove from heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flours, 2 Tablespoons sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and ginger. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter until it forms a coarse crumb. (I like to grate the butter with my cheese grater—it quickens the job.) Add most of the buttermilk—depending on the humidity, you may not need all of it. Mix until a solid dough ball has formed. Let rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

On a clean, floured surface, roll the dough into a long oblong, about 19 inches in length and 6 ½ inches wide. Cover the surface of the dough with the remaining 3 ½ cups diced rhubarb. Sprinkle the rhubarb with 1/3 cup sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. Roll the dough like you would roll cinnamon rolls or a jelly roll, maintaining the 19 inch length. Using a butter knife, slice the roll into 1-inch thick pinwheels. Lay them side-by-side in a 9” X 13” X 2” pan so the cut end is facing up in the shape of a pinwheel. Pour most of the sugar syrup over the pinwheels, making sure to leave 1 inch of space at the top of the dish so the sugar doesn’t boil over into your oven. (Use any remaining syrup over ice cream. It will keep at least a week in your fridge.)

Bake in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. When your taste buds become giddy with joy, yell, “Thanks, Grandma Betty!”

Makes about 16-19 pinwheels.

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Can't wait to try this . . . thank you (and Grandma Betty) for sharing.
I have a family recipe that I keep very close to my heart, your pinwheels look amazing...great recipe.

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