I hear New York, this weekend, emerged from the cold grip of winter to sudden spring. Isn't it grand, all over again? Here in Berlin, we've been there for a little while now (well, for the most part) and I'm so happy about it I periodically raise a fist clutching seven or eight stalks of glowing pink rhubarb to the heavens in gratitude and howl with glee.
Hellooo, spring! You are a stone fox.
Well, no, of course I'm not actually howling at the heavens and doing victory dances with rhubarb. (I haven't entirely lost my mind with spring fever. Yet.) But I have been zipping around the city with a bag of rhubarb, trying to decide what to do with my first stalks of 2010. A flat sheet cake studded with pink chunks of rhubarb? A stewy pot fragrant with wine and citrus? I even contemplated juicing the rhubarb and making my own rhubarb spritzers with cold sparkling water.
Last summer, I spent an afternoon at an outdoor café (is your computer's sound on?) near Zoo Station drinking rhubarb spritzers: impossibly refreshing, palest pink, the prettiest drink I've ever had beading lustrously in the sun. I think it was about then that I decided to move back to Berlin. How could I not, with rhubarb spritzers winking seductively at me? I ask you.
Then up popped a recipe in the New York Times for something as bewitching-sounding as "Country Rhubarb Cake" and I ask you, yet again, how could I not make that first? I don't know if it's my spring-addled imagination or what, but I think I can practically see you all nodding back at me. A rhubarb cake! From the country! A country cake! An Irish rhubarb country cake! Irish rhubarb! Cake! Done.
Who needs rhubarb spritzers?
I practically fell over myself getting to the stove. Well, actually, it took me five days from the time of reading the recipe to the countertop, but in my defense I will say I had some very important things to do, including a bike ride, the first of 2010, a Sunday brunch, an Easter lunch, and the viewing of one of the weirdest vampire movies I've ever seen.
Anyway, what this country cake is, basically, is a pie. A double-crusted fruit pie, except the pie dough is a little cakey. But the premise is the same: you make a crust, you try not to touch it too much, you divide it in half, roll each half out and line a pie plate with it (I used a 9-inch instead of a 10-inch, by the way, and it was fine). Then you put in a pile of thinly sliced rhubarb and cover that with what seems like an obscene amount of sugar.
I just had to physically restrain myself from using the caps key on the obscene. Because, people, whoa. The sugar.
But that's rhubarb! I told myself. It always takes way more sugar than you think. Remember?
The cake dough or pie crust or whatever you want to call it is kind of lovely: raw, it's nicely pliable and smells incredibly fresh and rich. It bakes up sort of like an enriched biscuit, almost; like a scone. Burnished and golden and wonderfully fragrant. All the doors and window frames in the apartment were painted a few weeks ago and the paint smell has been impossible to get out. The scent of country rhubarb cake baking in the oven was the best air freshener yet. It chased that paint stench right out the window and waved a Swiss-dot apron sweetly after it, too.
I love that buttery-sweet cake smell mingling with the sharp smell of sour rhubarb syrup bubbling up to the edges of the pan, sugar caramelizing darkly.
But there were a few things in the recipe that frustrated me.
First of all, there is no way that the small amount of buttermilk and one egg in all that flour would ever turn into a dough with a wooden spoon. I had to turn that shaggy mess out onto the counter and knead it - quickly - for it to come together.
Second of all, why on earth are you supposed to simply dump all the filling sugar on top of the rhubarb? Why don't you mix the sliced rhubarb and sugar together in a separate bowl, then pour the evenly sugared fruit into the lined tin? This bugged me.
Third of all, the recipe has you pinch together the top and bottom crust, so that the rhubarb juice won't spill out and ruin your oven, but then it tells you to bake the cake until the rhubarb is soft and juicy. Um, are you meant to ascertain this using x-ray vision?
Fourth of all, WHAT is the deal with sprinkling sugar on the browned and beautiful crust? Why? What is it good for? The cake is already edging towards this side of too sweet, then you have to go and mar the pretty burnished surface of the cake with a random sprinkling of granulated sugar? Dear readers, skip this step, I beg of you.
I don't have electric beaters yet, so we skipped the whipped cream, but I think it'd be lovely dolloped softly next to a wedge of the cake. The rhubarb was jammy and sweet (next time I'd use a little less sugar - try a 3/4 cup perhaps - and add a few scrapes of lemon peel or something, because I like my rhubarb with a little more sass) and the crust was rustic and pleasingly peasant-like. This really does taste like a cake you'd make in the country, easy and comforting, full of the things you'd get from your neighbor down the road. Just the thing to herald spring, in fact. Despite all those things that bugged me.
And a little more appropriate, shall we say, than howling at the moon, even in gratitude.
Country Rhubarb Cake
3 cups all-purpose flour, more for work surface
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 to 1 and 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, cut into pieces, at cool room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 pounds (about 8 stalks) rhubarb, thinly sliced
Softly whipped cream, for serving
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, sift flour, salt, 3 tablespoons sugar and the baking soda together. With fingers, rub in butter until mixture is sandy. Beat 1 egg and add to flour mixture. Add buttermilk and blend, then turn out onto a floured surface and knead briefly until the dough comes together. It will be quite stiff and sticky. Divide in two. Roll out each piece to fit a 9-inch round baking dish. Line bottom of pan with one round, pinching together any tears.
2. Cover dough with rhubarb and sprinkle rhubarb evenly with the remaining sugar. Place second pastry round on top and pinch edges together. Pinch together any holes. Beat remaining egg with 1 teaspoon water and brush it on dough.
3. Place a baking sheet in oven to catch drips, and place baking dish on it. Bake until crust is golden, about 1 hour. If the crust browns too soon, cover the cake with a piece of aluminum foil and continue baking. Serve warm, with whipped cream on each serving.