Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Strawberry-Rhubarb Fools

Fresh-tasting, airy and not too sweet, these simple, old-fashioned desserts are a fine way to celebrate the coming of spring and the first rhubarb of the season. Like most fool recipes, this one calls for swirling together a custard or whipped cream mixture with fresh or cooked fruit — in this case a to-die-for combination of stewed, sweetened rhubarb and fresh pureed strawberries. The lovely sweet-tart taste, appealing look,and ease of preparation make these festive individual desserts perfect for any seasonal occasion.

The origin of the name "fool" is uncertain: Some think it derives from the French verb fouler, to press or crush, but this may be a reach, since crushing or pressing are not always integral to preparation. The Oxford English Dictionary instead simply links the fool with another cream and fruit dessert, the trifle, or a bit of foolishness. A 1598 reference to "a kinde of clouted cream called a fool or a trifle in English" points in that direction. Several centuries later, a related, even more whimsically named concoction, the tipsy parson, or tipsy pudding, came on the scene. The "tipsy" references the generous lacing of the dish with sack, wine or other spirits. The "parson" part may suggest a dessert worthy of serving at Sunday dinner; no particular woozy parson has been identified in culinary lore.

Originally, fools and trifles were quite similar, but modern trifles tend to be much larger, more elaborately decorated and include bits of cake along with the fruit and cream. Both the Vanilla and Chocolate Trifle with Blackberry and Apricot Sauces and the Very Berry Trifle in my All-American Dessert Book feature pastry cream, whipped cream, pound cake and several fruits and can serve as dramatic finales to meals. (Records indicate that when Martha Washington was first lady, she sometimes served trifles at her parties. She complained that obtaining the necessary fresh, sweet cream was difficult.) It's possible to elevate the fools presented here to near-trifle status by tucking a few cubes of cake between the layers and topping each serving with a dollop of whipped cream as well as strawberries.

Tip: Stalks of rhubarb are usually sold minus their huge, ruffled and veined leaves, but if you find some with the leaves intact, trim off and discard them. (They are high in oxalic acid and not edible.) Some rhubarb varieties are just naturally brighter than others — a greenish tinge doesn't mean the stalks are unripe or any less sweet than reddish ones.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 cups trimmed and cut up (1/2-inch pieces) rhubarb (about 1 pound untrimmed stalks)

2/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more if desired

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

1 6-ounce carton regular or low-fat vanilla yogurt

2 1/4 cups capped fresh strawberries, plus 4 to 6 perfect berries for garnish

In a medium-sized, nonreactive saucepan, thoroughly stir together the rhubarb, sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons hot tap water. Let stand, stirring once or twice, until the sugar begins to dissolve. Place over medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender and has a saucy consistency. Let cool completely before combining with the berries (or refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days).

Up to an hour or so before serving time, coarsely puree the 2 1/4 cups berries in a food processor (or finely chop by hand). Fold the pureed berries into the cooled rhubarb. Taste and stir in a little more sugar, if desired. Whip the cream just until it holds peaks. Lightly but thoroughly fold the yogurt and a generous half of the rhubarb-berry sauce into the whipped cream. Spoon a third of the cream mixture into 4 to 6 clear glass dessert dishes, brandy snifters, glass goblets, etc., dividing equally among them. Then divide a scant half of the sauce among the dishes. Next, alternate layers using a third more cream mixture, the remaining sauce, then remaining cream. Garnish the fools with the reserved berries (slice if large). Serve immediately or cover lightly with plastic wrap and hold in the refrigerator for up to an hour.

Award-winning cookbook author Nancy Baggett includes several fools and trifles in her 2005 work The All-American Dessert Book and provides a rhubarb-strawberry betty in it, too. Baggett's latest cookbook, Kneadlessly Simple — Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads, was featured in a recent All Things Considered story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Nancy Baggett