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Vanilla Bean Meringue Cupcakes with Strawberry Rhubarb

  Rhubarb is definitely a Grandma ingredient.  Unfortunately, I've never felt too friendly with it.  I'd eat it, somewhat begrudgingly, as a kid.  When I grew up a little more and could pick and choose, I deliberately avoided it.  It was red, weird, crunchy, and sort of bitter.

  Why are people attracted to this?  That question ran through my head every time the family flocked around grandma's rhubarb meringue pie, or whatever else she had concocted with her garden's abundance.  I'd shrug my shoulders and go for the cookie jar and juice, cringing slightly at the purple reddish vegetables on everyone's plates. 

  Not only was I guilty of disliking this odd vegetable, I was also known to eat the meringue bits off of my parent's plates of pie, leaving them with their precious rhubarb.  I was a total meringue freak.  Grandma would sometimes have containers of them, darkened and with just the right amount of chew.  I could easily put those away.  This was done much to my parent's chagrin, since they had to endure the sugar-y effects for the two-hour drive back home.

  I got a cupcake calendar this past Christmas, and this month's cupcake appeared to be some sort of fluffy cake, topped with a meringue cap that was sandwiching some sort of strawberry filling and whipped cream.  It looked heavenly.  I scanned the recipe cards that had come with it, and found out that the whole cupcake was actually meringue.  Score!  Further inspection led to something disheartening: a strawberry rhubarb compote was the filling.

  My first thought was to double the amount of strawberries to make up for the instinctual rejection of rhubarb.  But I paused.  My neighbor's patch of rhubarb was huge, the stuff grows like weeds; and the bigger it gets, the more bitter it tastes.  Timing is essential with rhubarb picking, surely they wouldn't mind me taking a couple of stalks.  I decided it was time to tackle my rhubarb fears, as long as I had the meringue to compensate.

  I mixed up the compote, simmering down the rhubarb in sugar, and combining the resultant juice with the liquid leavings of the simmered strawberries.  This combined juice was boiled down into a syrup, then tossed with the softened chunks of rhubarb and strawberry.  I couldn't help feeling like I was ruining a perfectly good 10 oz. of strawberries with this torture.  I baked the meringue, let it cool overnight, and peeled off the liners.  I cut off the top, reluctantly spooned on the compote, and dolloped on some whipped cream for good measure.

  I took my first bite, and the rest was consumed in seconds.

  Hello rhubarb.

Vanilla Bean Meringue Cupcakes with Strawberry Rhubarb
Yield: 12 cupcakes

Ingredients for the strawberry rhubarb compote:
Makes about 2 cups
  • 10 ounces (about 2 cups) fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 10 ounces (about 2 3/4 cups, or 2 large stalks) trimmed fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/4-inch pieces 
  • 2 tablespoons water 

Ingredients for the cupcakes:
  • 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 1/2 of a vanilla bean, scraped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • powdered sugar in tablespoonfuls, for sweetening the cream as desired

To make the strawberry rhubarb compote, stir strawberries, 1/4 cup sugar, and lemon juice in a small nonreactive pan; bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook, stirring often, until softened; about 3 minutes. Remove strawberries from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the juice, and place in a medium bowl to cool. Set aside the pan with strawberry liquid.

Meanwhile, in another small pan over medium-low heat, combine rhubarb, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, and the water. Simmer gently, stirring often, until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb is almost tender; about 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer rhubarb to the bowl with the strawberries. Add the strawberry liquid to the pan with the rhubarb liquid.  Raise the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced to about 1/2 cup; about 10 minutes. Let cool before stirring into the strawberry-rhubarb mixture.  Store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use.

To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 225 degrees F.  Line every other cup of two standard muffin tins with paper liners; coat each with cooking spray.  Fit a large piping bag with a large plain tip.

With a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg whites, vinegar, vanilla bean seeds, and salt on medium-high speed until frothy. Add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; occasionally stop before an addition and scrape the bowl down, to ensure all the sugar is getting dissolved. Continue whisking until firm, glossy peaks form, and you've mixed in all the sugar.

Transfer meringue to prepared pastry bag and pipe into lined, greased cups so meringue is about 2 inches above rims, finishing with a peak in the center.  Bake, rotating halfway through, for 3 to 3 hours and 20 minutes. (Cupcakes should be completely dry on the outside but still soft in the middle, a toothpick inserted horizontally at the base of the top should have moist but cooked crumbs attached.)  Remove from oven and immediately remove from tins.  Transfer cupcakes to wire racks; let cool completely before peeling off the liners.

Just before serving, whisk (you can also use an electric mixer) together the heavy cream and desired amount of powdered sugar (I used about 2 tablespoons) until soft peaks form.  Using a serrated knife, gently slice tops off cupcakes (don't worry if they crack, they'll still taste good).  Spoon compote and then whipped cream onto bottom halves, and replace tops.  Serve immediately.

Sources: cupcake adapted from Martha Stewart and Whisk Kid, compote via Martha Stewart