Rhubarb was a mystery to me up until a couple of years ago. While I’d of course heard of chefs and home cooks alike fawning over the spring vegetable, I’d never really understood its appeal. The few instances I might have tried rhubarb, it was almost certainly paired with strawberries in a supporting role. But after trying rhubarb on its own, I was awakened to its star power.
Rhubarb’s pleasant tartness is what makes it great in desserts, lending balance to a recipe’s sweetness. Hitting farmers markets and grocery stores in late spring, rhubarb comes in stalks ranging from soft, pale green to deep crimson red. While red rhubarb is most often what you see in glossy food photos, it’s purely for aesthetic reasons, as color isn’t an indication of ripeness or sweetness.
Here, it’s paired with a cardamom-scented cornmeal cake. The cake is a variation on a Dorie Greenspan recipe where I’ve switched up the flavorings to let cardamom’s fragrant warmth mingle with the tartness of the rhubarb.
All upside-down cakes start by putting a layer of whatever fruit or vegetable you desire on top of a mixture of butter and sugar. I opted for a chevron pattern with the rhubarb to make it look extra-fancy, but you can go with any design you want (or just chop the rhubarb into even pieces and spread it out haphazardly). Next, just whisk together the ingredients for the cake batter, pour it on top of the rhubarb and bake.
The key to a successful upside-down cake is that you need to flip it out of the pan while the cake is still warm. If allowed to cool too much, the sugar on the bottom of the pan will harden, taking the cake hostage.
A word of note: The color of the rhubarb will fade some. My colleague G. Daniela Galarza recommends precooking the rhubarb in a sugar syrup if you want to preserve some of its color, but I think it still looks beautiful au naturel.
For those focused on looks, the cake is most attractive fresh out of the oven, but its taste still receives top billing for a few days. The cake is great on its own, but a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream or even creme fraiche would add a cool, creamy element. I’ve even topped it with a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt for breakfast.
Rhubarb’s arrival is a sign that summer and warmer days are soon to come, so make this upside-down cornmeal cake to celebrate.
Rhubarb Upside-Down Cornmeal Cake
1½ sticks unsalted butter
½ cup packed light brown sugar
12 ounces rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces (see notes)
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal, preferably medium grind
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup well-shaken buttermilk, at room temperature
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet (see notes) over medium-low to medium heat, melt the butter. Transfer ½ cup (120 milliliters) of the melted butter to a small bowl.
Add the brown sugar to the remaining butter in the skillet and stir until just combined, about 1 minute; spread into an even layer and remove from the heat.
Arrange the rhubarb, rounded-side down, into the sugar in an even layer without overlapping, trimming the rhubarb as needed to fit. A chevron pattern makes it look fabulous, but the design choice is all yours.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda and salt until combined.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs and vanilla until well incorporated. Whisk in half of the flour-cornmeal mixture. Add all of the buttermilk, stirring until the batter is homogenous. Add the rest of the flour-cornmeal mixture, stirring until it disappears into the batter.
Stir the ½ cup of reserved melted butter into the batter in two to three additions, fully incorporating each new addition before adding the next. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the batter into the skillet and spread it evenly.
Bake for about 35 minutes, or until golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in the skillet for 15 minutes before inverting onto a serving platter. You want to do this while the cake is still warm so it does not stick.
Let cool for at least 30 minutes or to room temperature before cutting into wedges and serving.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Notes: This cake can also be baked in a 9-inch springform or round cake pan with 5 to 10 minutes added to the baking time.
Try to purchase rhubarb stalks of similar thickness for easier pattern-making.
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