When you pore through Alaska’s early-20th-century cookbooks, you notice how creative and resourceful pioneer cooks were: always scouting what they could get from Outside, and how they add it to what they could hunt, fish and gather.
Canned tomatoes, old sourdough starter, cold coffee, canned milk, raisins — they came up with all kinds of interesting ways to make it delicious. They were masters of substitutions. They figured out how to make ice cream and bake cakes without fresh milk, eggs or cream. When they were out of fresh fruit, they layered sweetened crackers to fill pie.
Alaskans cook like that to this day. Rhubarb crisp is a great example. Recently, I asked for crisp recipes on Facebook and then realized it was probably the wrong question. The best crisp makers don’t use recipes. They use what they happen to have and do it by feel. They are crisp MacGyvers. Check out their advice:
“My most important rule is that sometimes you’re at fish camp and you just gotta use what you’ve got. Things I’ve used instead of sugar include fake butter-flavored maple syrup, honey so crusted to the jar it had to be chipped out, and 7 Up.”
And this: “In a pinch when at the cabin, use a couple packets of instant oatmeal and you don’t need sugar or cinnamon — it’s already in there. Not as good as the original, but still delicious! Throw in any fruit that got banged up on the boat ride up the bay, especially nectarines!”
The recipe below is how I like it, oaty and buttery and on the sweeter side. In keeping with the Alaska cooking spirit, I included many, many choose-your-own-adventure substitutions, instructions for making it at a camp or cabin.
Choose-your-own-adventure Alaska Rhubarb Crisp
4 1/2 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 1/2 cups sliced strawberries (or raspberries, blueberries, or peaches… You can really use any fruit combination, just adjust the sugar down if you’re not using rhubarb. Works with 6 to 7 cups fruit.)
1 cup sugar (or 2/3 cup honey or maple syrup, reduce sugar for sweeter fruits.)
2/3 cup water (Variations: Add a splash of vanilla, rose water, cointreau, or triple sec; grate in some ginger and/or citrus zest; sub in orange juice or lemon-lime soda and reduce or eliminate sugar.)
2 teaspoons cornstarch (Optional. If you choose the maceration method, you can also use 2 tablespoons flour or quick-cooking tapioca.)
1 cup flour (subs: gluten free flour, almond flour, buckwheat flour; if you like it more cobblerish, increase by 1/2 cup and reduce oats)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Optional spices, up to 2 teaspoons: cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, in any combination
1 1/2 cups rolled oats (can sub in 1/2 cup or more chopped nuts/pepitas/unsweetened coconut)
One stick of butter (can be melted, soft or fresh from the fridge)
Heat oven to 350º. Prepare a 13-by-9 baking dish, preferably glass. Also works with a dutch oven.
Method 1: Spread the fruit in the baking dish. In a small pan on medium heat: dissolve sugar, water and cornstarch. When it reaches a boil, pour the mixture over the fruit.
Method 2: Toss the mixture with the fruit, sugar and cornstarch and allow it to macerate (sit there) for at least an hour.
Camp method: Put all the fruit in a large Ziploc with sugar and cornstarch/flour/tapioca. (If you’re not planning to make it for a couple days, freeze it. Bonus: keeps the cooler cold!)
Method: In a bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, oats, salt, spices. Crumble butter in by hand until the butter bits are pea-sized or smaller. (Or, melt the butter and combine.)
Camp Method: Mix the topping ingredients ahead of time and throw them in a Ziploc. Or, if you’re like me, just measure them into the bag, throw a stick of butter in there and mix it by hand just before baking.
Pour the topping over the fruit in the pan. Bake for 45 minutes or until the filling bubbles through the topping. (Filling thickens as it cools.) Also works in a dutch oven.