Red-streaked stalks of rhubarb appear in tight bundles in our CSA each spring, and as soon as spring fades into summer at the local farm, the rhubarb from our own garden is ready for the harvest. My family lives high in the mountains, where the force of summer’s heat never quite reaches and we can grow cool weather crops from July through September until the snows begin again.
Rhubarb is a favorite of mine, its tartness marrying well with sweet things – strawberries, of course, but also mineral-rich brown sugars whose faint acidity provides a complement for the vegetable’s natural, rounded sour notes.
Jaggery: A Traditional Old-world Sweetener
I remember jaggery from my childhood living in Asia. I lived on a small island in the middle of the Pacific known for its sugarcane production, and while the island shipped much of the sugarcane away, a handful of producers kept a bit – out of habit or out of desire to keep a semblance of the old ways in practice. They’d mash and grind the sugarcane to release its sweet, mineral-rich juice. I’d watch, mesmerized, as the old farmers would pour the fresh juice into huge cauldrons set over wood fires, the cauldrons would steam and bubble as the water cooked away, leaving a sticky, concentrated sugar in its stead. They’d pour out the past, stir it, and let it harden into cakes of rich, unrefined golden-brown sugar. If I were lucky, and I often was, a farmer might cut away hunk of the sugar for me, and I’d suck on it, allowing its sweetness to melt on my tongue until it disappeared in the warmth of my mouth.
Since Pure Indian Foods began recently offering traditionally prepared, organic jaggery, I’ve purchased it online in hefty blocks that I keep, treasured, in my kitchen cupboard until a special occasion or recipe calls for the sweetener. Jaggery’s truly unrefined nature (no centrifuging, no separation of molasses and sugar, no excess refining or processing) ensures it retains a high mineral content, but more than that, jaggery keeps the multidimensional flavor of sugarcane with all its faint tartness, and subtle strawberry notes. Unlike white sugar, which offers only single dimensional sweetness, jaggery brings not only sweetness to the table, but the flavor of the plant as well.
How to Use Jaggery
Use jaggery as you would any cane sugar: as a 1:1 replacement for white or for brown sugar. At first, you’ll notice not only jaggery’s aroma and sweetness, but it’s moistness as well – and, with time, that moistness dissipates, and you can break a bit off or grate it. Small amounts are excellent for sweetening morning teas, while it can also be used to flavor and sweeten homemade sodas and tonics like water kefir.
Why to Choose Organic Jaggery (and where to find it)
While you can find jaggery in southeast asian markets in most large cities, and you can find its Latin American cousin – panela and piloncillo – fairly easily in ethnic grocery stores, it’s important to source and choose an unrefined cane sugar from a reputable source as many jaggeries can be of poor quality, and subject to contamination by heavy metals. You can purchase traditionally prepared, organic jaggery online through Pure Indian Foods, further Pure Indian Foods tests every batch of jaggery they produce to ensure its quality and that it is free from heavy metals.
Yogurt Rhubarb Skillet Cake with Jaggery Crumb
Skillet cakes are my favorite cakes – simple to prepare and served in an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet which is, incidentally, the most used piece of equipment in my kitchen. I start by blending freshly ground whole-grain flour with yogurt, and letting it soak for a period of time, a process that not only increases the bioavailability of the minerals it contains, but that also softens the crumb delivering a delicious, light cake. The next day, I saute a bit of fruit (or, in this case, rhubarb) in jaggery and butter until it softens, finish off the batter and bake. Impossibly easy, and impassibly delicious.
I rarely bake cakes anymore, but there’s a certain charm to an old-fashioned rhubarb skillet cake that I can’t pass up. As it bakes, it perfumes the whole of my kitchen, trying my patience as I wait for it to cool enough to scoop out onto plates. For this is a cake whose rustic nature demands scooping, not precise slicing. I often pair it with a glass of raw milk (see reasons why we drink raw milk) or a spoonful of homemade yogurt.
Rhubarb Skillet Cake with Jaggery Crumb
- 3/4 pound rhubarb
- 1/2 cup Pure Indian Foods organic jaggery tightly packed
- 3 tablespoons clarified butter or Pure Indian Foods grass-fed organic ghee
- 3/4 cup blanched almond flour
- 1/2 cup Pure Indian Foods organic jaggery tightly packed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons melted clarified butter or Pure Indian Foods grass-fed organic ghee
- The night before you plan to bake, beat the spelt with yogurt until loosely combined. Cover the bowl with tight-fitting plastic wrap lest it dry out, and set it in a warm spot in your kitchen overnight for 8 to 12 hours.
- The next day, chop the rhubarb into 1/4-inch dice. Toss it into a bowl and sprinkle 1/2 cup jaggery over the rhubarb. Allow the rhubarb to macerate in the jaggery for about an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Melt 3 tablespoons of clarified butter or ghee over low heat in a well-seasoned 9-inch cast iron skillet. Toss the macerated rhubarb into the hot butter and saute about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and prepare the cake batter.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs with 3/4 cup jaggery until smooth, then beat in the vanilla extract. Working 1/2 cup at a time, beat in the batter of yogurt-soaked spelt flour. In a separate bowl, whisk high-extraction flour with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, orange zest, baking soda and salt. Working 1/2 cup at a time, beat the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until they form a smooth batter.
- Prepare the jaggery crumb in a small to medium-sized mixing bowl. Beat the almond flour and jaggery together with cinnamon, then slowly beat in 3 tablespoons melted butter.
- To assemble the cake, pour the cake batter into the skillet over the rhubarb. Sprinkle the jaggery crumb over the cake batter, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake’s center comes out clean – about 1 hour. Allow to cool about 20 minutes before dipping into it with a spoon and scooping it out onto waiting plates.