I planned on bringing you olive-oil braised vegetables, carrying on with the celebration of green and the shouting about spring from the rooftops in chorus with everyone, everywhere.
But then this cake sailed into my life just as I was writing out a grocery list full of austere words like fennel and carrots and potatoes. This cake spoke of rhubarb, lemon, sugar, butter. It sang to me. The vegetables would wait.
And it got even better than its rousing ingredient list: You start it like a tarte tatin, caramelizing the fruit in a hot bath of sugar and butter. When everything gently slouches, you top it with a one-bowl dough. Halfway through reading the recipe, I was already baking it my head.
In its earliest form, this recipe, hailing from the Saveur archives, touts shortening and a good bit of sugar. It’s sweet, just this side of cloying, but still nice -- the way sitting on your grandma’s porch in August is sweet. I replaced the shortening with butter for flavor and bumped up the acid to chaperone the sugar. (It still tastes like grandma’s house; this time she just got a little handsy with her lemon.) This is the sort of cake that gets placed in front of you on long weekends home, a second slice waiting in the wings for when the first is finished.
But you’d do well to make it more of an everyday reality: Melt rhubarb, butter, and sugar together in a cast iron skillet, then lay down clumps of sturdy dough onto the warm fruit; it will act less like a blanket and more like a dowdy, misshapen comforter. It will feel a lot like a cobbler, and you’ll worry you’re doing something wrong. Put it in the oven anyway.
The cake’s baking powder will pinch hit, making the batter rise on up to cover any spots of rhubarb you may have missed. (In this way, it’s like a tarte tatin you can’t mess up.) It will grow into a cake. Then comes the drama: Say a quick prayer and flip it upside down. You’ll wonder again, briefly, if this is actually a cobbler and will it collapse everywhere. Trust it.
What you’ll reveal is an underside that’s a mess of girlishly pink, warm rhubarb jam perched smugly on top of a buttery crumb. "Did you think I wasn’t going to work?" it’ll coo.
Take this cake to a cookout or a picnic or eat it for breakfast, with a mug of tea. (This is practice, of course, for pie season, when you will eat cold slices on many mornings.) Serve it as a part of a brunch spread; bring it out with sparkling wine at the end of a leisurely dinner party. It’s a roller coaster of a cake, but and at the end, you’ll want to make it again. And again.
Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from Saveur
Serves 8 to 10
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 1 stick and 6 tablespoons cut into 1/2-inch cubes and chilled
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
Scant 1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Ice cream or whipped cream for serving, optional
Photos by Eric Moran