Spring Vacation Rhubarb Berry Pudding Cake

The other day I got caught behind a family of four stretching across the narrow aisle of produce and prepared foods that greet you when you enter Citarella, a specialty food store in my neighborhood. As I tried to bob and weave my way around the mother, pushing the sleeping daughter in a stroller, and the father, holding the hand of the six year old son, the whining refrain of the boy was like a hammer in my ear. “Mom, can we take a taxi home? I hurt my foot.” No response. “Mah-ahm, can we take a taxi home? I hurt my foot.” Now he was limping and dangling from his father’s grasp. “Mah-ahm, can we take a taxi home…” honestly, this kid was like an IPod on Replay and I would have kicked his injured leg if he hadn’t caused a passel of witnesses to pile-up behind me. I was irate on two counts. One, that I hadn’t contracted the sudden onset of complete hearing loss that seemed to be plaguing his conveniently deaf parents and two, that this kid was whining about taking a taxi. When I was his age we took the bus, unless there was a dire emergency or an incredibly fancy event to get to. Even when I was a teenager my parents weren’t doling out $20’s so I could take a cab safely home after a Saturday night. I may be the only person you know to have stood shivering at 2AM, waiting for the M104 bus on 8th Avenue and 54th Street after a pretty pathetic night at Studio 54 years after it was cool. But that’s not the point. The point is that not only did I not have the fare but I also didn’t assume that a cab was a transportation option.
When did things that were reserved for special occasions become expected? How did the question morph from, “Are you going away over spring break?” to “Where are you going over spring break?” It makes me a little bit sick and it wasn’t the atmosphere in which I was raised. Growing up, vacations were what my parents took to get away from their children. I hated it when they went away, not because I wanted to join them, but because I didn’t want them to leave in the first place. Their departure meant my grandparents’ arrival and that was a big drag. My grandfather would drop me at school and invariably, right as we were approaching the big double doors, call up every drop of phlegm circulating in his respiratory system—making a sound both disgusting and mortifying—spit the sputum into the gutter and then lean over to give me a good-bye kiss. Yes, I will accept your pity.
Sure, I had some classmates who took family vacations, jetting off to the Caribbean in December and Vail in March, but it was never like the city emptied out and I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for a play date—apparently a cause of great stress for the parents of school-age kids who tragically are spending their spring holiday home in New York City.

Unfortunately the presumed vacation isn’t a completely new phenomenon. One January when I was in the 4th grade, my homeroom teacher at my slightly snotty school asked all the kids in the class to report on what we’d done over Christmas. As we went around the room, many girls had exotic travels to share. As it got closer to my turn, my best friend Emily leaned over and whispered, “Don’t forget! You visited your cousins.” She was trying to protect me, which was very sweet, but isn’t it sad we were in an environment where she felt that she had to? So when we got to me I piped up, “We went to Dayton, Ohio!” triumphantly. (Okay, it wasn’t Round Hill but hey, I got to take a plane and sit in an Olde Timey fire truck in a shopping mall.) But if I hadn’t spent a long weekend with my family and grandparents at my aunt and uncle’s house, I would have easily filled up my days and probably wouldn’t have been disappointed. As it was, the trip to Ohio involved lots of hushed tensions among the grown-ups and my aunt’s surreptitious and passive-aggressive hiding of assorted pork products in almost every one of her gourmet meals. Not good when her father-in-law was going through a kosher phase.
Regardless, as the years passed I did have a few adventures over school breaks, none of them very successful. When I was ten I was sent to visit my mother’s father and step-mother in Palm Beach. They’d been married since my mom was 17 and Nanny was the only woman I ever knew to be married to Grandpa Sol. She really rolled out the welcome mat as any good Step-Grandmother would. As we walked around their building’s pool she introduced me to every face-lifted old biddy as, “Sol’s grand-daughter.” I couldn’t wait to go home. There was also the trip to Key West when I was the guest of the above mentioned Emily and her family. Let’s just say Em looked a lot better in a bathing suit than I did in the ninth grade and it didn’t take long for the boys on the beach to offer their sunscreen application services. She got an even tan and my back practically peeled off. Then there was my first trip to Mexico when I tagged along on a business trip with my mother. I temporarily lost the hearing in my right ear on the flight there (too bad I couldn’t recall that trick when I was at Citarella last week) and my mom was ready to kill me when my complete lack of participation in conversations with her colleague and his wife made every meal feel like there was a big black hole at my side of the table.
And so here we are and it’s spring break time all over again. Some of my friends and their kids have fled for the snow capped mountains out west, some are headed to the Bahamas, and some are staying put, finding ways to keep their children engaged and out of trouble. But a tropical idyll wasn’t an option for me and I have to say I couldn’t care less. The weather has been gorgeous, even if my allergies don’t appreciate the premature buds, and the abundant red stalks of rhubarb, my favorite spring fruit (actually, it’s a vegetable) are stacked high at Fairway. I made the most delicious pudding cake with it, taking the edge off its inherent sour with strawberries and blackberries. Seeing all the bright colors swirled together made me feel hopeful and excited for our next two warm seasons and I didn’t even need to leave town or go into credit card debt. That is the perfect spring vacation.
Rhubarb Strawberry Pudding Cake
Adapted from Gourmet, April 2007
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1/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup chopped fresh rhubarb stalks (no leaves)
1 cup blackberries, halved if large
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish. Set aside.

Stir together water, cornstarch, and 1/3 cup sugar in a small saucepan, then stir in rhubarb. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in strawberries.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.

Whisk together egg, milk, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.

Reserve 1/2 cup fruit mixture, then add remainder of fruit to baking dish and pour batter over it, spreading evenly. Drizzle reserved 1/2 cup fruit mixture over batter.

Bake until a wooden pick inserted into center of cake portion comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes before serving. (Pudding cake will still be warm and juicy, serve using a large spoon.)Yield: 8 servings

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