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Little Rhubarb Angel Cakes make a light, tangy dessert

Rhubarb pushing through the cold earth is one of the first signs of spring. Eating rhubarb is one of the first joys that come when longer days turn winter to spring and spring to summer. Lucky for us, rhubarb loves cool weather. And as long as we continue to harvest the rhubarb before the plant begins to flower, it will continue to produce tall, firm stalks, extending our rhubarb-eating season.

As a child, I remember grabbing a stalk of cleaned rhubarb from the table where my grandma would be creating one of her famous strawberry-rhubarb pies. I would simply stick the end of the stalk in sugar, eat and repeat.

I still enjoy the tart and tangy flavor of rhubarb and I am always looking for new ways to incorporate it into sweet and savory treats.

Little Rhubarb Angel Cakes start with an angel food cake mix that is baked as cupcakes. A spiced rhubarb sauce gets a sassy new twist with the addition of crystallized ginger and becomes a fresh zesty filling in each cupcake. A drizzle of orange-flavored glaze adds a sweet touch to the top of each Little Rhubarb Angel Cake.

These sweet little desserts can go from casual eat-out-of-hand cupcake to fancy eat-with-a-fork ending to a dinner party with friends. The little cakes get a bit more glamorous when they are peeled from their paper holder and turned upside down before getting a hole punched into their middle to be filled with thick rhubarb sauce.

An apple corer works well for punching a hole into the center of each cake, although I discovered it works best when done the day the little cakes are baked. If you bake the cupcakes the day before and store them tightly covered overnight, the top of the cakes become soft and smoosh down when you press the corer into the middle. In this case, a wooden skewer poked into the center and circled around and around will successfully make a hole the size you need. Just be sure you don't go through the bottom of the cupcake.

Any leftover rhubarb sauce can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator. Serve it over cake or ice cream. Eat it for breakfast layered with yogurt and granola. It's delicious spooned over waffles and pancakes.

With each heavenly bite, Little Rhubarb Angel Cakes whisper the beginning of all that's great from the garden.

Little Rhubarb Angel Cakes

8 cups of chopped (1/2-inch pieces) rhubarb

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 (3-inch long) stick cinnamon

3 whole cloves

1 (2-inch long) strip lemon zest

1 (2-inch long) strip orange zest

3/4 cup orange juice, divided

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger

1 (16-ounce) box white angel food cake mix

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Combine rhubarb and sugar in a large saucepan. Tie cinnamon, cloves and strips of zest in a cheesecloth bag or assemble in a tea ball. Add to saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has the consistency of applesauce, about 6 to 8 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir cornstarch into ½ cup orange juice, mixing until cornstarch is dissolved. Pour the dissolved cornstarch mixture into the saucepan. Keep cooking and stirring until the rhubarb mixture is thickened, about 3 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and crystallized ginger. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature. Remove the spice bag. Cover rhubarb sauce tightly and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Prepare cake batter following directions on box. Spoon 2 heaping tablespoons of batter into about 36 paper-lined muffin tin cups. Bake on middle rack of oven preheated to 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until tops are golden brown and feel dry. Cool cupcakes in paper liners on rack.

Using an apple corer or a wooden skewer, make a hole in the center of each cupcake the diameter of a penny. Spoon rhubarb filling into a pastry bag or freezer-strength plastic storage bag with one corner snipped off. Squeeze rhubarb mixture into holes.

Prepare glaze by combining remaining 1/4 cup orange juice, melted butter and powdered sugar in a small bowl, whisking until smooth. Set the glaze aside for a few minutes before using.

Using a spoon, drizzle glaze over the top of each filled cupcake. Refrigerate Little Rhubarb Angel Cakes in a tightly covered container until serving time. Makes 32 to 36 little cakes.

Tips from the cook

--It will take about 2 1/4 pounds of trimmed rhubarb to yield 8 cups chopped.

--Use a vegetable peeler to take a strip of zest from the orange and lemon. Squeeze the juice from the same orange to use in the recipe. Store the stripped lemon in the refrigerator until needed for another use. Remember that the zest of citrus is the colored part of the skin. Leave the more bitter white pith behind.

--Crystallized ginger is created when freshly harvested ginger root is diced and simmered in sugar syrup and then allowed to crystallize into zesty sweet-hot nuggets. Find it in most grocery stores in the baking aisle or with the natural foods.

--For an added surprise, drop a small chunk of fresh strawberry in the hole before filling the cupcake with rhubarb mixture.