At this time of year, the rhubarb plants in the garden here squirt out huge dark green leaves at the end of long reddish-pink stalks. Pretty exotic looking with bulbous flower buds popping up, they produce far more than anyone can eat. People seem to love or hate rhubarb. I hear that some eat it raw, dipped in sugar. That is one too far for me, because I do like rhubarb but can’t manage it uncooked and unsweetened.
When I moved into this old farmhouse in May 1988, one rhubarb plant appeared just a little to the north of the kitchen ell. I suspect it was from the original inhabitants, the Bunkers, a survivor of Aunt Annie’s garden. We divided it and moved one chunk to our vegetable garden, then acquired yet another cultivar. The newer plant has smaller stalks, reddish their entire length, that keep well into July, unlike the old variety.
You probably know you can’t eat the leaves. Maybe you know that if you keep lopping off the flower buds, the plant will keep producing stalks until later in the season. Maybe best of all, deer don’t eat rhubarb and it is nice to have a plant for which we don’t have to fight off a four-legged creature.
The default mode around here for rhubarb is crisp. Strawberry rhubarb pie is lovely, of course, but I seldom have strawberries until later in June. I can use a limited amount of rhubarb chutney and besides I like my peach chutney better. A few years ago, I learned about orange and rhubarb compote, shared the recipe in my column, and make at least one batch every year.
For years, I cut rhubarb stalks into one to two inch lengths, froze them loose on a cookie sheet, then knocked them off into resealable bags. It was too bad but I never got around to using them often enough, though they were good mixed with raw apples in a crisp, or sometimes with berries.
Still I am always on the prowl for new rhubarb recipes. Why upside-down cake didn’t occur to me earlier, I can’t explain. I spotted this possibility on one of my favorite food websites. Food52.com is well worth visiting if you use the internet. I tinkered with the recipe as usual. The original is a bit extravagant, calling for nearly two whole sticks of butter so I knocked that back a bit. I used the suggested lemon for flavoring but promised myself the next time I made it, I would choose orange because I like rhubarb and orange, and would, besides, add orange zest to the cake part, not just the rhubarb.
You can use a food processor to cut the butter into the flour, stopping while the butter is still fairly large, then finish with your fingers to rub the butter the rest way into the flour. The cake makes dough, not batter, so dropping the cake part into the rhubarb mix is a little like topping stew with biscuits or dumplings. Fret not: the cake swells up and fills in where needed.
All you need is six stalks of rhubarb. You probably have a friend with a plant who is more than happy to share; otherwise produce sections and farmers markets have it this time of year. Rhubarb looks a little messy when stewed up, so I sprinkled in some dried cranberries to make it prettier. The cake is large, so this works for a dinner party of 12 rhubarb-loving people with or without ice cream or whipped cream on top.
Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Yields a 9-inch cake
For Rhubarb Layer
–¼ cup butter (a half-stick)
–½ cup light brown sugar
–½ cup white sugar
–Zest of 1 lemon
–Juice of ½ lemon
–2 teaspoons vanilla extract
–6 stalks rhubarb cut into 1-inch pieces, about 3 ½ to 4 cups
–½ cup dried cranberries, optional
For the Cake
–½ cup sugar
–¾ cup cut up into tablespoon-sized pieces (1 ½ sticks butter)
–2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
–2 teaspoons baking powder
–⅓ to ½ cup milk
–2 eggs, lightly beaten
Ice cream or whipped cream, optional
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Melt the butter and sugars together in a 9-inch cast iron skillet set over medium heat on the stove. Add the lemon zest and juice, vanilla, rhubarb pieces and cranberries, if using them.
Simmer gently for about 5 minutes, until the rhubarb is tender and the mixture is glossy and bubbly. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, stir together the sugar (for the cake), flour and baking powder and cut in the butter until it is pea-sized pieces, then rub in the butter until the mixture is granular.
Add ⅓ cup of milk and the eggs and mix well, adding more milk as needed until you have a sticky dough.
Drop the dough onto the rhubarb mixture until it is covered.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until cake is golden and a tester comes out clean.
Cool briefly, run a knife around the inside edge of the pan, then place a platter over the pan and turn the cake over to release it.
Serve with ice cream or whipped cream if you wish.