Shhhhh, I’m pretending it’s spring. The funny thing is that it is spring where a lot of you reading live. But here, it’s autumn. Full on leaves turning colors and littering the ground and if you’re the house a few blocks away, occasionally a fire in the fireplace. Still, there is a lot of rhubarb to be found in the grocery stores so it’s an easy pretense for me to make. Never mind that I have the heat on most mornings (delicious. I do love a crisp morning.) Never mind that the sun sets by 5:30ish and bedtime has been pushed ever earlier (not complaining). Summer will wend its way back around soon enough and we’ll be lamenting the humidity and eating lots of cold salads for dinner. For now I’m sticking with roasted root vegetables and chocolate cake yes, rhubarb. Maybe I’ll get lucky and I’ll be able to find rhubarb year-round. (This would then beg the question: will I get tired of cooking with it? But no matter.)
I made a cherry upside down cake last week from a recipe on Bon Appetit, and to be honest I didn’t like it at all. Perhaps it was me still figuring out the temperatures on my fan forced oven but the cake was a bit bland and almost rubbery. The cherries were fine but overall it wasn’t my best effort. Not even close.
The good that did come out of that rather dismal attempt was that it got me fixed on the idea of an upside down cake with rhubarb, adapting my favorite simple butter cake recipe to include whole grain spelt flour to gently bolster the rhubarb. I cooked down the rhubarb in a bit of honey and butter, then poured it, juices and all, into a cake pan while I (technically “we” — Sierra has a great hand for whisking eggs) made the batter. We’d spent most of the day out of the house doing a circuit of coffee drinks out, library, picnic in the park, gelato, a quick grocery stop to pick up butter and rhubarb. I’m a master at killing time when my husband is away. We came home mid-afternoon and I sorted out the kiddies, stowed the supplies, and got out my two bowls to be ready for mixing. I love that pre-dinner, post- lunch period when you’ve been outside for hours — pleasantly sunned and starting to get tired but still with a few hours to fill before bedtime. Cake-baking is always a perfect way to pass the time.
Honey-infused silky soft rhubarb is obviously the star of this humble cake, but I’d argue in favor of the cake itself, too. Spelt flour, my favorite whole grain flour, gives it a tender crumb and a lovely, rustic shade. I thought about incorporating cornmeal but decided to keep things very simple; I also didn’t feel like having too much extra texture in there. Sierra and I sifted and whisked and it all came together in less than a half hour: a lovely blend of sweet cake and slightly tart rhubarb that, i if done right, caramelizes just the tiniest, crispiest bit along the round edges.
It was so good warm that I had to refrain from eating a larger-than-necessary piece. And of course also wonderful straight from the fridge with your morning cup of coffee or tea. Cheers to spring. Or autumn.
You may use all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, or your favorite gluten-free flour blend here if you like. If you use all-purpose flour, reduce the amount of milk by one tablespoon.
Makes one 8 or 9-inch cake.
1/2 cup honey
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Zest of 1 organic lemon
Pinch of salt
1 pound rhubarb, washed, trimmed, and sliced into long 1/4-inch pieces (the pieces should be about the length of your cake pan)
1 1/2 cups spelt flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup whole milk plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a large cast iron pan or skillet, melt the honey and butter over low heat. Stir in the lemon zest and salt. Spread the rhubarb out evenly and cook until slightly softened and releasing its juices, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8 or 9-inch round cake pan and line with a circle of parchment. Pour in the cooked rhubarb and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl and using an electric mixer on medium speed, cream the butter, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the butter is lighter in color, about 45 seconds. Then add the sugar in a steady stream and scrape down the bowl again. Continue to mix on medium speed until the mixture is very light in color and texture, about 4 to 5 minutes.
In a small bowl whisk the eggs. Slowly pour in the eggs a little at a time, and beat very well for about 2 minutes.
Combine the vanilla and milk in a small bowl or measuring cup.
With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in two doses, alternating with the milk. Scrape down the sides of the bowl in between additions.
Pour the batter on top of the rhubarb, smoothing gently. Place cake in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife around the side of the pan to loosen the cake, then turn out onto the rack to finish cooling completely.