Country Rhubarb Cake
I’m heading out for a vacation in the sun (well, currently a Nor’easter is getting in the way, first round of cancellations have occurred….fingers crossed) and so am starting to dream of Spring. I love the seasons, I wouldn’t want it any other way than to have all the changes, but part of the fun is getting excited for what is coming next. Spring. Which means rhubarb. (The photo up above – that is giant rhubarb that grows by the coast in Ireland. GIANT. Much taller than me. I have no idea if you can actually cook with it.)
I adore rhubarb. I can distinctly remember trying it for the first time one of the times we lived in England – well, I can distinctly remember that we were in England and that I thought it looked weird for something people claimed would be sweet or fruit-like and that I was not an adventurous eater as a child and I don’t know what made me agree to try it. Though, I was also raised in a household of ‘you have to have three bites’ of anything before you got to say you really didn’t like it. So maybe this memory is only pleasant because it was a success. Most likely there was an exasperated parent at the other end of the fork at first. (I’ll spare you the details of the Brussels Sprouts Event. Or the Pea Soup Incident. Parents, don’t despair, I’m a pretty well-rounded, adventurous eater today. There is hope.)
Anyway, I have loved rhubarb ever since. My mother had a great friend, Mary Prior, who wrote an entire cookbook of rhubarb recipes (Rhubarbaria) and I am a proud owner and user of this cookbook every year.
I feel like rhubarb disappeared from my life for a long time. Maybe it just doesn’t appear often in Philadelphia or Chicago or Boston, or maybe I stopped paying attention. But when I lived in Dublin and London and now Vermont, it became a regular feature again. In my rural life here in the northern USA it is one of the first fresh-grown foods we get in the spring and so is beloved by many more than just me. Even if you don’t love to eat it, by the time rhubarb makes an appearance, you are ready for things to be growing again. Rhubarb is also very prolific. If you have a patch, you could feed an army. There are willing rhubarb donors all around my small town. Spring has really, truly arrived when you get that first call, ‘hey, I’ve got rhubarb, do you want some?’.
Now, in innkeeping life, rhubarb and Memorial Day often arrived together, or pretty nearby anyway. And at my inn, Memorial Day was The Busiest Weekend Of The Year. Crazy, monumental busy. Kick-off to the busy portion of our year. Any and all complicated chores were completed by then and we were ready for all the tourists. One of my all-time favorite moments happened one year when a local dairy farming friend called to say they had tons of rhubarb and would I like some. Yes, I said. (Always say yes to the offer of rhubarb.) And so the rhubarb arrived the next morning, on dairy farming/innkeeping hours – blissfully early. Chopped. Bags of it. Trimmed and chopped to perfect cooking size pieces. All I had to do was pour it into the nearest recipe. Farmer friend said she knew it was my busiest weekend of the year and decided pre-chopped might be welcome. And that, right there, is the definition of helpful, thoughtful, small town love. It is unexpected and welcome and small and huge all at the same time.
I have baked many rhubarb recipes and have not really encountered any that I haven’t loved. It lends itself to hearty, rustic, simple cooking, or at least that’s the kind of desserts I generally choose to make. I substitute it into breakfast breads that call for fruit, throw crumble topping on it, make jam… There is a fantastic Raspberry and Rhubarb Muffin recipe by Joanne Chang of the Flour bakeries in Boston that was on heavy repeat at my inn. The growing seasons for strawberries and rhubarb don’t actually coincide very well where I live, so I haven’t made the famous pie very often. And as much as I love strawberries, I kind of like giving rhubarb it’s time to shine alone. This Country Rhubarb Cake is one of my favorite recipes. (Oh, except that I made rhubarb curd once, and I could have bathed in that. It was also the very most perfect shade of grayish pink.) It’s basically just enough batter to hold the rhubarb in place. Serve warm with ice cream (or custard, if you really want to win my heart).
Country Rhubarb Cake
Simple, rustic, springtime cake. Recipe credit: Gourmet, 2004
- 3 cups rhubarb chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 2 cups cake flour
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (plus 2 tbsp)
- 1 stick cold, unsalted butter cut into small pieces
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1 egg
- 1 egg (separated)
Preheat oven to 400F. Butter a deep pie plate and place in refrigerator to chill.
Toss rhubarb with the brown sugar.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and 1/2 cup sugar. Blend in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture is coarse and meal-like in texture.
In a measuring cup whisk together the milk, egg and egg yolk.
Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the milk/egg mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a sticky dough.
Place half the dough in the chilled pie plate and pat to cover the base and partially up the sides. You'll want to flour your hands to do this.
Spoon in the rhubarb and any juices that may have accumulated.
Spoon the rest of the dough on the top in small mounds. It's rustic, don't worry if it's not even.
Mix the egg white with a little bit of water and brush the dough with the egg mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar.
Bake 30-40 minutes, until the cake is golden brown.