Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

I have been hungry for rhubarb upside down cake since rhubarb season began this year.  I’m not sure why....  Whatever the reason, I kept purchasing rhubarb so I could make it.  But since I love rhubarb, my purchases kept making their way into other things:  


tea cakes…. 

On Sunday I finally got around to making my upside down cake. 

The recipe is a bit unusual in that the cake portion is an old fashioned spice cake (instead of the usual yellow cake).  Years ago I ran across a spice cake version of rhubarb upside down cake in Emily Luchetti’s Four Start Desserts.  I’m not sure I ever made her exact cake....I just incorporated the spices she used (cinnamon, ginger and cloves) into the basic buttermilk spice cake I had grown up eating.  The combination of the spices with the tangy rhubarb is unusual and delicious.

In the past when I have made this cake I have made it in what I consider to be the traditional way.  I cut the rhubarb into a uniform large dice, tossed it with sugar and spread it in an even layer in a cast iron skillet (generously smeared with butter) and then topped the fruit with the batter before baking.  And this method makes a very satisfactory cake.

But in recent years when I have made upside down cakes, I have tried to consider the unique qualities and shapes of a particular fruit when I’m using it in an upside down cake.  I accentuated the fan shape of cross-sections of fresh pineapple (rather than the traditional donut-like rings) in my pineapple upside down cake.  And I capitalized on the beautiful color and shape of plums in a spiral surface for my plum upside down cake. So when I began to think about rhubarb it was obvious that in order to make the best use of the stick shape, I needed to use a square pan. 

I am not the first person to think of this (you will see lovely examples of it on other blogs), but I do have a few pointers to add to the conversation.  First, use a ruler.  This will give you neat and precise lines. Measure the exact size of your pan (just because your pan is labeled 9 x 9 doesn’t mean it will be exactly 9 inches square) and then cut the rhubarb into lengths that are exactly 1/3 of that measure.   If your stalks of rhubarb are fat, cut them in half lengthwise.  Count up your lengths of rhubarb and divide the number by 9.  This is how many stalks you will have to fill in 9 squares of a three by three grid of squares on top of the cake.  If you don’t have an even number, don’t worry, you will probably end up rearranging and moving some of the stalks around to account for the fact that some pieces will be fatter and some thinner.  Any extra can be tucked in on top of the others…they will just add more fruit flavor and a better fruit covering of the cake.

And getting a good covering of fruit over the cake is what an upside down cake should be all about.  I prefer as solid a layer of fruit as you can manage without any gaps.  Consequently, my recipe calls for a fairly large amount of rhubarb—anywhere from 1 to 1 1 /4 lb., depending on how much loss there is when you cut the lengths.  

As with any upside down cake, in order to get the most attractive covering of fruit, remember you are working in reverse, looking at the back side of the finished cake surface.  All of the stalks that have been split should be turned so the cut surface is facing up or to the side (against another stick of rhubarb)—not face down.   To get good coverage, any un-split sticks that are wider than they are thick should be placed on their narrow side.  As with most things, it sounds more complicated than it is (and is actually more difficult to describe than it is to execute).  If you remember you are working in reverse and your goal is to get as much rhubarb into the pan in a single layer as is neatly possible, you will end up with a nice looking finished cake. 

And if all you really want to do is eat a delicious spice cake topped with a sweetened layer of rhubarb, you can always make this cake with chopped rhubarb in a 10-inch round pan or cast iron skillet.  But, I admit, I was very pleased with the cross-hatch/patchwork pattern on the top of my cake.  I hope others will give it a go…or maybe try another design.  I’m sure that someone who is more artistic than I am could come up with a different—more intricate—design.  In fact, I hope someone will....   cooking and baking are ultimately about making recipes your own.

Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

1 to 1 1/4 lb. trimmed rhubarb, rinsed and wiped dry (from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lb. pre-trim weight
3 T. soft unsalted butter
3/4 c. sugar

1 3/4 c. sifted cake flour (6 ¼ oz.)
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/8 t. ground cloves
2/3 c. whole milk yogurt
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature

Prepare the rhubarb:  Measure the bottom of the pan (it might be slightly under or slightly over 9 inches).  Divide this number in 3 and cut all of the rhubarb into this exact length.  You might have some leftover bits aren’t quite long enough.  Set them aside for now.  Cut any fat lengths (wider than 3/4-inch) in half lengthwise.  Count up the number of lengths and divide by nine.  This is the number you have for each square in your grid of nine.  (Your number will most likely not be evenly divisible by 9.  This is fine; you will just tuck in extra pieces where ever the covering of rhubarb looks a little sparse.)

Smear the softened butter over the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch square baking pan (with sides that are at the very least 1 3/4-inches—a 2-inch depth is preferable), concentrating most of the butter on the bottom of the pan with just a light coating on the sides.  Scatter half of the sugar in an even layer over the bottom of the pan.  Starting in one corner, lay a ninth of the lengths of rhubarb in one direction, placing them with any cut surfaces facing up or to the side.  For the next square on either side of the first, lay another set of lengths running the other direction (perpendicular to the sticks in the first square).  Fill in any gaps with any extra lengths of rhubarb—cutting them to fit if necessary.  Scatter the remaining sugar evenly over the rhubarb and set the pan aside.    

Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.  Set aside.  Combine the yogurt and vanilla and set aside.

Cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy—this will take 3 to 5 minutes at medium-high speed using the paddle attachment.  Stop the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides and beating well after each addition.  Fold in the dry ingredients in 3 additions alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.

Spread the batter evenly over the rhubarb in the prepared pan. Bake in a 350° oven until the cake is springy to the touch, has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 40 to 45 minutes.  Let the cake rest for 15 minutes in the pan.  Carefully run a knife around the inside edge of the pan.  Place a cake plate upside down on top of the skillet and holding the cake plate firmly to the skillet, quickly flip the cake over.

Allow the cake to set up for a while before serving.  It is best slightly warm or at room temperature.  Cut the cake with a sharp, thin knife, using a sawing motion.  Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.  Serves 9 to 12.

Alternate presentation:  Cut the rhubarb into 3/4-inch pieces.  You should have about 4 cups.  Smear a 10-inch cast iron skillet or 10- by 2-inch round cake pan with the softened butter, concentrating most of the butter on the bottom of the pan.  There should only be thin film of butter on the sides.  Toss the rhubarb with 3/4 c. of sugar.  Spread the rhubarb in an even layer over the bottom of the pan and sprinkle any sugar remaining in the bowl evenly over the rhubarb.  Proceed as directed with the recipe above. 

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