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A&E >  Food

Rhubarb shines in velvety upside-down cake

It already felt like summer, sipping sparkling rosé and barbecuing in a friend’s backyard on a recent warm weekday evening.

Then, her 4-year-old daughter thrust a leafy stalk onto the table in front of me. “Here,” she said. “For you.”

The one stem of rhubarb – the first of the season for me – soon turned into a pile. When I left for home later that evening I carried away a paper bag full of pretty pinkish-red rhubarb stalks – what a gift! – and a plan to make rhubarb upside-down cake.

Rhubarb, a vegetable that’s treated like a fruit, is best known as a pie plant – although growing up we rarely enjoyed it that way. It seemed like Mom made a simple rhubarb compote almost every spring, cooking down the stalks with sugar and maybe a little water or juice. I don’t think she ever followed a recipe.

I still enjoy the sweet-tart taste of the syrupy dessert over ice cream or Greek yogurt or swirled into whipped cream. And, of course, fresh rhubarb – often coupled with strawberries, pomegranate seeds or apples – in a freshly baked pie is a seasonal treat in spring and summer.

But I wanted to do something that showed off and kept the shape of the gorgeous, ombré stalks – not tuck them away under a crust or cook them into – an albeit delicious – mush.

The look of this cake, described in a May 20, 2011, story by Melissa Clark in the New York Times, is a “pale pink mosaic atop velvet-crumbed and vanilla-infused cake.” The rhubarb, added in raw, becomes “tangy and tender,” but remains “firm enough to give you something to chew over.”

It sounded perfect.

And it turned out beautifully.

The cake was creamy, smooth and moist, with hints of lemon and vanilla. The topping, sticky and sweet, showed off the stalks and lent a light and not-too-tart taste of rhubarb.

If I make it again, however, I would cut the amount of sugar – and maybe the butter in the topping, too. After letting the cake rest and cool for more than an hour, the topping was still pretty oozy. And, for my taste, it simply didn’t need to be as sweet. I’d prefer to let the rhubarb – not the sugar – shine.

Apparently, the author agreed. A note at the bottom of the recipe noted she had tried it with 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar and ¼ cup brown sugar, “and it still tastes great.” I think I would aim for 2 ¼ sticks butter, too, using a quarter of a stick for the topping instead of a half of a stick.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

From Melissa Clark of the New York Times

The original recipe can be found at:

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, more to grease pans

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, rinsed and sliced into 1/2-inch cubes, about 4 cups

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

2 cups cake flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Zest of 1 lemon, grated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

1/3 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper and sides of the pan. Wrap two layers of foil under the pan, and place it on a buttered baking sheet.

In a medium bowl, mix rhubarb, cornstarch and 1/4 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar.

Mix 1/4 to 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/4 to 1/2 stick butter in a pan over medium heat. Whisk until smooth and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt.

Whip 2 sticks butter in a mixer with a paddle attachment for 2 minutes. With your fingers, blend the remaining 1 cup sugar with lemon zest until the mixture is uniform in color. Cream together with the butter at medium-high speed until it is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl halfway through. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, then the lemon juice. (It’s OK if the mixture looks curdled.) With the mixer set to low speed, add the flour mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, until well combined. Scrape down the mixer bowl in between the additions.

Pour the brown-sugar mixture into the cake pan, then spoon in the rhubarb and its juices. Spoon in the batter so it covers all of the rhubarb. Smooth out the top.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the top of the cake is firm to touch and a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out without any large, moist crumbs.

Place the pan on a wire rack, and cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the cake, place a plate on top of the pan and turn it upside-down. Release the cake from the pan while still warm or else it will stick.

Yield: 8 servings

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