When I was just a wee thing, I had a wonderful children’s cookbook (British, I think) with life size color photographs of the recipes – each ingredient as well as the final product. I would spend private afternoons carefully paging through this book, gazing intently at the cheese sandwiches with faces made of peppers and olives, the scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, the fish stew. But, I would linger the longest on the cake recipe, a simple yellow sponge cake, decorated with icing and candies in the photograph. This cake was special. We almost never had dessert in my family growing up, unless it was a birthday or Christmas. But, once a year when the little rhubarb plant nestled along the corner of the garden shed was ready, my mother would give the go ahead, and we would cut down a few stalks and bake them into this yellow cake. It felt like Heaven, this dessert we got to make for no special occasion in particular, except that the rhubarb was ready and I had a cake recipe.
We’re in Minnesota again, at my parents house, for one of approximately 436trillion weddings that are happening this summer. I went out to the garden yesterday morning to check…the rhubarb was ready. I wanted to bake a cake. I’ve moved slightly beyond my “Child’s First Cookbook” days, I’m slightly sorry to say, but I still wanted to keep it simple, to let the rhubarb shine through in a delicate moist cake. Then again, I’ve also been becoming progressively more obsessed with brown butter (yes, I know that was totally two years ago, but better late than never, and it still tastes amazing, rich and nutty, even when it’s not one of Food & Wine’s foods of the year), and I had an inkling that browning the butter in the cake to give it a soft caramel undertone would buoy the tartness of the rhubarb to new heights.
Delicate and spongey, light and flavorful, and just bursting with the bright summery-ness of the rhubarb chunks, the cake was perfect with softly whipped sweet whipped cream (or vanilla ice cream). We sat with friends in the sun in the backyard, enjoying it with our afternoon coffee, discussing new jobs and old college memories. A strong, chill wind suddenly blew in, carrying with it a large grey cloud and wisps of fog. We looked up and mused about whether we should head inside. But as quickly as it had blown in it dissolved and the smiling sun returned. So we cut ourselves seconds of the cake, refilled our coffee cups, and relaxed back into our chairs. Settling into summer.
Brown Butter Rhubarb Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen and a traditional Norwegian cake)
- 1 ½ – 2 cups rhubarb, cleaned and sliced into ½ inch pieces (if you are very sensitive to the tartness of rhubarb, you may want to toss these pieces with a little sugar)
- 3 eggs, at room temperature
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- ½ cup butter
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan (it probably would work in another kind of cake pan too, but I pretty much always use my springform for cakes because it’s the best!).
- In a small bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, and let it cook, stirring and continually scarping up any solids that form on the bottom of the pan. The butter will start to foam a lot, keep cooking and stirring! After about 6 or 7 minutes, it will start to turn nut brown and smell wonderfully toasty. At this point, remove it from the heat, and keep stirring a little while longer as it starts to cool. Set the butter aside, but don’t put it in a cold place (you don’t want it to solidify).
- In a standing mixer, whip the eggs on high speed for about 5 minutes, until they become light yellow and very fluffy. Then, add in the sugar and vanilla and keep whipping for about another 5 minutes. The mixture will turn a very light lemon cream color and will have greatly increased in volume (in Norwegian this is called an eggedosis, which happens to be one of my favorite words!).
- Turn the speed down to low, and working quickly add the flour mixture and brown butter in a couple of stages, alternating between the two. When the flour and butter have just been incorporated into the batter, turn the mixer off. Gently use a spatula to make sure that any of the brown butter that has settled to the bottom is stirred back up into the batter, then scrape the cake batter into the cake pan. Sprinkle the rhubarb all over the top (over the course of baking the rhubarb will sink into the cake so that it’s in the middle of it).
- Bake the cake for about 40 minutes, until the toothpick/knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a cooing rack for 10 minutes. Then run a knife around the outside of the cake and remove the outside of the pan. Allow to cool a bit more before serving. Serve with sweetened whipped cream (if you add a little splotch of crème fraiche to the whipped cream, it’s totally awesome!) or with vanilla ice cream.