It is still baffling to me that so many people have decided to learn how to bake during quarantine, and the first thing they tried to tackle was bread. Bread! Do you know how hard it is to make a perfect loaf of bread? If it were easy, none of us would ever have to settle for subpar bread, which we do all the time. It’s similar to how the launch of Pinterest made everyone, regardless of skill level, feel pressured to bake elaborate cakes and, well, we all know how well that’s been going for everyone.
What’s happening here is that non-bakers are shooting for the moon and failing hard, and then for the rest of their lives they say, “I can’t bake.” I hear this constantly! I have readers tell me they’d love to try one of my recipes, but they won’t because they “can’t bake.” I have friends who are professional chefs that call me every time they have a dessert question because they “can’t bake.” You know why you people can’t bake? Because you don’t bake. It’s like if a baby crawled up to a piano, tried to play Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” by bashing their fists on the keyboard, and then said, “Screw it, I’m never playing Carnegie Hall.” That baby is a quitter.
Learning how to bake is just like learning how to play the piano, or cook, or literally anything else: you try something simple, you mess up, you try it again, and you mess it up a little bit less. Eventually, that something simple feels natural, so you push yourself a little further and fail a little more. This is how you stop being a person who “can’t bake.”
Now, as far as the “something simple” to start with, few things are easier than cobbler. You don’t need a mixer, it’s not supposed to be pretty, and it’s pretty hard to mess up. Cobbler is the laziest of desserts, the kind of thing I find in vintage cookbooks from the days before gas stoves when ingredients weren’t measured in cups or grams, but in palmfuls and pinches. I made this recipe with rhubarb, because we are currently in rhubarb’s all-too-short season and I wanted to make the most of it, and because it’s super easy for beginners to work with. First, the rhubarb is cooked quickly on the stove with some sugar and fresh-squeezed citrus juice (I used grapefruits because I’m very into them this week, but oranges and tangerines work well, too), then thickened with a bit of cornstarch and poured into a baking dish. Next, a sticky, shaggy biscuit dough is made; it’s one of those doughs that won’t suffer if you’re not to-the-gram precise with your measurements. Messily plop the dough over the rhubarb, put it in the oven for 25 minutes, and behold: you have baked something!
You’ll probably need to make this great-tasting cobbler a few times in a row, you know, for “baking practice.” Once you get good at rhubarb cobbler, you can start making it with other fruits like berries, apples, or my personal favorite, plums. You can then push yourself a little further, perhaps trying your hand at shortbread cookies, or a very simple pie, or, of course, bread. Soon, with enough practice, you’ll be catering Carnegie Hall.
Note: I do not expect you to precisely measure the rhubarb or citrus juice, because no one can control the yield of fresh produce, nor should anyone throw away any rhubarb because they had half-a-cup “too much.” Cobbler is very forgiving.
For the rhubarb:
- Roughly 4-5 cups rhubarb (3 large stalks)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 Tbsp. honey
- 1 tsp. salt
- Roughly 3/4 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit or orange juice
- Zest of the aforementioned grapefruits or oranges
- 1 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger
- 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
- 1 Tbsp. tap water
- 2 Tbsp. butter
For the dough:
- 2 1/3 cups flour, plus a bit extra in a bowl for dusting your hands
- 1 Tbsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 6 Tbsp. cold butter
- 1 tsp. freshly grated ginger
- 1 tsp. grapefruit zest
- 1 cup milk
- Honey, for drizzling (optional)
For the whipped cream (what’s cobbler without whipped cream?):
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 Tbsp. powdered sugar
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. You can bake this cobbler in a rectangular or square baking dish, a cake pan, or a cast iron skillet—the baking time will be a bit different for each, which brings us to our first rule of baking: all times in all recipes are approximate! Always check on your baked goods (like this cobbler) five minutes earlier than your recipe instructs, then keep an eye on things and use visual cues to tell you when they’re done. Whatever baking vessel you’re using, put it on top of a sheet pan to catch drips in the event the cobbler bubbles over (not a bad thing, but certainly a messy one).
Trim the tops and bottoms off the rhubarb, then cut it into 1/2" slices. In a medium saucepan, stir the sugar, honey, salt, and citrus juice together and put over a high flame, stirring occasionally; when the sugar dissolves, add the rhubarb, ginger, and half the citrus zest. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium. In a small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and water until smooth, then stir into the rhubarb and cook for about one minute until it begins to thicken. Turn off the heat, add the butter, and stir until it melts. Pour the contents of the pot into your baking dish.
Put the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Using a sharp knife, cut the butter lengthwise into four planks, then cut each plank into four sticks, and then cut the sticks into tiny cubes and throw them into the bowl. Give everything a quick toss with your hands to break up all the butter, then use your fingertips to pinch every butter cube to flatten them (it’s okay if you miss a few). Make a well in the center of the bowl and add the milk, ginger, and the remaining zest. Use a fork to mix them together well, then begin stirring in the flour mixture; keep stirring until there are no dry spots left.
Dust your hands with flour, grab pieces of dough, and plop them right on top of the rhubarb. Do not worry about the pieces being even, do not worry about everything looking nice, do not worry if anything overlaps. Once your cobbler is fully assembled, slide it into the oven and set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes.
When your timer goes off, crack open the oven a little bit and take a look. Your cobbler isn’t done yet, but from this point on, keep an eye on it, checking every 2 minutes or so. You want the dough to become a beautiful golden brown—when it looks like a cobbler that you want to eat, then it’s done. Pull it from the oven, put it on top of the stove, and let it cool down for about 10 minutes.
If you want to bother breaking out the mixer, then just throw the cream, sugar, and vanilla into the bowl, turn the mixer to medium, and let it go for a few minutes until you have whipped cream. I don’t like breaking out my mixer for this recipe, though, because when I eat cobbler I like my whipped cream to be soft, custardy, and practically pourable. To do this, I put the cream, sugar, and vanilla into a jar (or any resealable container) and then just shake the hell out of it for a few minutes until it’s as thick as I like it.
Cobbler is best served warm, but it’s also good at room temperature, or cold. I mean, it’s cobbler. How can it ever be bad?