Quick, before anyone mentions apples, saskatoons or partridge berries, think of the fruit that grows in 10 provinces and 2 territories. Rhubarb. Not native to Canada, but an early import that liked its chilly new terroir, Rheum rhabarbarum has staked out a place in Canada’s culinary scene, old-fashioned, and contemporary. Before anybody corrects me by saying rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, it is, but usage has quite rightly shifted its rosy and green stalks to the fruit side.
On the old-fashioned and fruit side, count the number of rhubarb pie (rhubarb’s nickname is “pie plant”), cakes, muffins,crisps, cobblers, conserves, jams, chutneys, sauces and nectars that have filled Canadian cookbooks from the 19th century. As for the now scene,with its emphasis on local and seasonal, chefs have embraced the stalks to showcase them as cold soups, compotes, white chocolate trifles, tarts and sorbets. And rhubarb that had a reputation a little like zucchini as in “Whatever am I going to do with all this rhubarb”, now sells for $5 a bunch at my local farmers’ market, and nobody bats and eye as they buy two bundles, just enough to make a pie, one pie. Saints preserve us!
Of all the rhubarb recipes that have passed through my kitchen over the years, the one that stands out is called “Lunar Rhubarb Cake”. As a freelancer I was working on a rhubarb and strawberry story for the 1982 special interest publication, Canadian Living Summertime Cookbook Special with friend and mentor, home economist Sandy Hall. We were discussing various rhubarb cake options when she recalled a cake her mother-in-law made every spring. Adapted to Canadian Living Magazine and tweaked for our tastes, we tested and approved the recipe. I was struck by its appearance.
A rather generous sprinkle of brown sugar and butter over the top baked into the cake, and pitted in a way that looked a moon landscape. Ta da! Lunar Rhubarb Cake.
The recipe was published, and within weeks, Lunar Rhubarb Cake recipes popped up in publications from weekly local newspaper to big city dailies and in the following rhubarb season, national magazines like Homemakers. The recipe was always virtually the same, as was the wording about why this homey cake got its name. Then the whole moonscape cake thing died down. But last spring The Cookbook Store (Toronto foodie centre) announced a new rhubarb cookbook featuring more than pies, and guess what! Among the cakes, Lunar Rhubarb Cake. All I can say is that a good recipe gets around. Here it is again – in case you missed it back then.
Lunar Rhubarb Cake
As for all cakes, let the butter, egg and buttermilk come to room temperature before making the batter. Set the oven rack is in the centre of the oven, and preheat just in time to put the cake in the oven.
1/2 cup (125 mL) butter, softened
1-1/2 cups (375 mL) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla
2 cups (500 mL) all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 mL) baking soda
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1 cup (250 mL) buttermilk
2 cups (500 mL) chopped rhubarb (1/2-inch/1.25 cm pieces)
1 cup (250 mL) firmly packed light brown sugar
2 tsp (10 mL) ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (50 mL) butter, softened
. Line 13- x-9-inch (3.5 L) metal cake pan with parchment paper or butter thoroughly but lightly. Set aside.
. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until well mixed and fairly smooth. Add the egg and vanilla; beat until smooth.
. Set aside 1 tbsp (15 mL) of the flour. In a separate large bowl, whisk together remaining flour, baking soda and salt. Add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, making 3 additions of these dry ingredients and 2 of buttermilk.
. Toss rhubarb with remaining flour. Spoon over the batter and fold in. Scrape into the prepared pan, smoothing the top.
Lunar Topping: In bowl, mix together sugar and cinnamon. With a fork or pastry blender, work butter into the sugar mixture until crumbly. Sprinkle evenly over the batter.
. Bake in the centre of 350°F (180°C) oven until the lunar topping is pitted and crusty and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cool on rack.
. Makes about 16 servings.
Tip: While you can cover and store the cake for up to 2 days at room temperature, it is best made and served the same day.
Rhubarb Nectar aka Spring Drink
At the recent opening of photographer/professor Mike Robinson’s “Daguerreotypes, Past and Present” at Campbell House Museum in Toronto, volunteer historic cooks served “Spring Drink” as part of a 19th century reception menu of savory and sweet dishes. “Spring Drink has gone by many names, “Rhubarb Nectar” being one of my favourites as it describes so well the essence of spring rhubarb in every sip. The drink is easy to make, stores well in the fridge and is handy to pour over ice and serve with a spritz of sparkling water or soda water.
Volunteer Vi Cardella and I chopped 2 lb (1 kg) rhubarb to make 7 cups (1.75 L). The rhubarb went into a large non-aluminum saucepan with 7 cups (1.75 L) water. We brought the mixture to the boil, covered, and simmered it until the rhubarb broke down, timing from when the mixture came to the boil, about 4 minutes. We let it cool before straining it through a fine sieve. We could have made the drink clearer had we lined the sieve with dampened cheesecloth. One cup (250 mL) granulated sugar was stirred into the rhubarb liquid, and we heated it until the sugar dissolved and cleared. It went into the fridge and was served cold with chilled sparkling water for a drink that guests deemed totally delicious. A nice surprise for people who don’t expect to be drinking rhubarb.
Note for Rhubarb Lovers: Only the stalk is edible.