Every time I buy rhubarb at the grocery, at any store, the cashier has to ask me what it is and then struggles to find it on the produce code chart. Is it a vegetable or a fruit (technically a vegetable, by the way)? Once a cashier suggested I memorize the code to make it easier on everyone. Inevitably, this leads to the question “What do you do with it?” And on the occasions I have prepared a dish with rhubarb for people, I generally get a somewhat skeptical look.
I love rhubarb, but it is a relatively new introduction into my life. I have friends who grew up eating their grandmother’s strawberry and rhubarb pie, but it never much figured in my life. I first remember tasting rhubarb in England, in a fool. A fool is basically simple dessert of whipped cream and fruit and rhubarb seems to be a favorite British incarnation. It was many years later that I even noticed that rhubarb was available in the grocery store here, though I imagine it was there all the time. I don’t know much about rhubarb’s natural growing climate, but I have never seen it at a farmer’s market or produce stand here in Memphis. I do think it must be growing in popularity though, because I now find a regular supply of lovely, red stalks at groceries here, both winter forced and spring-fresh.
So over the years, I have expanded my rhubarb repertoire – though I still have a long way to go. I frequently buy it, chop into chunks, sprinkle it with sugar, bake it until it’s soft and mash it into a stringy puree. I keep this in the fridge and stir into yogurt drizzled with honey for a breakfast treat. I also make a lovely Rhubarb and Vanilla Jam. If asked nicely, I might even share that recipe with you. But my favorite incarnation so far is this classic crumb cake with tangy pieces of pink rhubarb studding the sweet, cinnamon-y cake. It’s great for breakfast, with a good English cup of tea or as dessert. So please, give rhubarb a chance.
Rhubarb Crumb Cake
For the Crumb Topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup cold butter
For the cake:
12 ounces fresh rhubarb (to produce 4 cups chopped)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup butter, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch round cake pan.
Cut off the dried ends of the rhubarb and cut the stalks into chunks about a ½ inch thick. If the rhubarb is fat, cut them in half lengthwise first. A quick note: rhubarb will turn what it touches pink, so use a washable cutting board and wash your hands immediately. Wear gloves if you have just had a manicure so you don’t ruin your polish.
For the crumb topping: In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to another bowl and set aside. Wipe out the mixer bowl.
For the cake: Combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and baking powder in a small bowl. In the bowl of the mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk and mix until combined. Stir in the chopped rhubarb. Spread the batter in the prepared pan.
Sprinkle the reserved crumb over the cake batter and spread out to an even layer. It may look like an awful lot of topping, but that’s what makes this so good. Bake the cake for 40 – 45 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle come out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack.
Serves 8 – 10