SPICED RHUBARB UPSIDE DOWN CAKE
(AND A FRESH START)
So much for the best laid plans. You may have noticed, I took an unplanned hiatus from this site about two weeks ago. In fact, the hiatus wasn’t limited to the virtual realm. When you’re a freelancer, you have to take the assignments when they come, and inevitably, when they do, it’s in a great avalanche of opportunity, all at once. You’re grateful. But you’re also terrified: what if you can’t get it all done? What if this is the *last* assignment you every get?! You worry — and then you buckle down and do it.
That’s why for the better part of the last month, I’ve more or less given up cooking, cleaning, or adhering to those pesky household routines (buy more paper towels, take out the recycling, open the mail) that make a life run smoothly. I haven’t even really been sleeping much. Instead, the days have passed in a blur of scribbled calendar pages, reporter notebooks, and emails; of piles of clothes and suitcases and security checkpoints and hotel keys; of room service coffee and wine pairings and waiters who want to “interest me” in cocktails.
If it sounds glamorous, well it can be — up to a point. A very precise point, in fact, when you realize that you long for nothing more than to sleep in your own bed and make your own coffee in the morning — even though a month’s worth of laundry will be waiting for you, and a bedroom floor that’s littered with the last bags you didn’t unpack, and a refrigerator that smells like something died inside it (because something probably did).
At that point — <ahem> this point — all you can do is take teensy little steps: strip the sheets, fold one of those loads of laundry, clear off a corner of the desk…and start inching your way back to behaving like a human being. Still, for me, nothing makes me feel more like my old self than slipping back into a routine in the kitchen. The key is starting simple: you do not need yet one more reason to feel dysfunctional, you need a sure-fire. This is not a moment for theatrics or feats of strength.
Simple and sweet. Fruit and crumb. Oatmeal raisin cookies work. Or even blueberry muffins. But if there if there is one sugar and fruit delivery system that I adore beyond the others, it is the upside down cake. Pineapple: you betcha. But also apple and pear and peach…pick a fruit and chances are I’ve tried it.
This particular version — a new one! — layers a sticky, tart compote of rhubarb and fresh ginger over a fragrant, toffee-colored New England spice cake. It was inspired by the cool and bright Brooklyn spring I came home to (and the sheaves of rhubarb in the Greenmarket) and a post I read on my friend Elspeth’s fantastic blog while I was still traveling — which featured a pudding combining rhubarb and gingerbread (a genius pairing I’d never heard of before).
Elspeth’s pudding came from an old recipe clipping from the Coaticook Observer newspaper in Coaticook, Vermont, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. It was a lovely old thing. But…while I liked the sound of it — and tend to be a gingerbread freak, in general — I decided after some thought that for this particular cake I wanted to keep the ginger flavor, but lighten it up, staying shy of a true deep, dark Yankee gingerbread. I wanted a spice cake — a stained pine brown, with flecks of cinnamon and allspice and nutmeg — the kind that you get in diners up and down the Northeast coast, and usually comes with a ivory frosting of sweet cream cheese.
Last summer while camping in Acadia park and foraging in the local used bookstores, I picked up an old community cookbook that had been handwritten and illustrated in November of 1948 by the good women of the First Congregational Church in Brewer, Maine. (Wanna see it? Click here.) I had a hunch it might be just the place to start when searching for the spice cake platonic ideal — and it turns out I was right. I made a few adjustments and additions and omissions, but more or less, the cake half of this recipe comes sixty years out of the past, courtesy of (the talented, and, I feel quite sure thanks to her cheery handwriting, very lovely) Ms. Kathleen Flye.
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
16 oz rhubarb, chopped into 1/2 slices
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated to a paste
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1. Heat oven to 375˚. Line the bottom of a springform cake pan with a round of parchment paper, leaving 1/2 overhang around the circumference.
2. Make the rhubarb topping: Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a non-stick skillet on medium heat. Next, add 1/2 cup sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves, about 2-3 minutes. Add 10 ounces of sliced rhubarb and the ginger to the skillet and stir gently so that they are evenly coated with the butter and sugar. Cover the pan and cook until the rhubarb releases its juices, about 5 minutes. It will get quite wet, so uncover and cook down over medium heat, stirring occasionally so it does not scorch, for 15 minutes, or until the mixture is thick, sticky, and jammy. Toss in remaining sliced rhubarb and stir to combine; then, pour the rhubarb mixture into the prepared springform pan and smooth it around so that it covers the bottom evenly. Set aside.
3. Make the cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. In a separate, large bowl stir together the buttermilk and the melted butter. Then working in batches, sift the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, stirring softly, until just smooth and combined.
4. Pour cake batter into the springform pan, over rhubarb layer; gently smooth the batter to the edges of the pan using a knife. Bake 40 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, and then turn the cake over onto a large plate, release the spring mold, and peel back the parchment. Serve wedges slightly warm with a heaping spoonful of fresh whipped cream.