I was sure I’d already mentioned my rhubarb theory here, but it turns out I have not. I’ve talked about rhubarb, yes: how nicely it plays in a coffee cake (plus a poem, there, for good measure), how lovely it is roasted, how to tuck it underneath a crumble. But I’ve not mentioned my most profound thought on this glorious vegetable disguised as a fruit.
Last spring was my first in the Bay Area, and I was so puzzled by how difficult it was to find rhubarb at the market, and by how nonchalant everybody was about it. I was the opposite of nonchalant. I was giddy, desperate to fill every sort of baked good with rhubarb and roast it and stash it in my freezer for the days following its fleeting season. I couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t feel the same. But then I realized: the markets were already overflowing with berries, stone fruits fast on their heels. We had fava beans and baby carrots and fresh herbs and artichokes and every sort of lettuce you could imagine. There were plenty of things to keep us occupied in the early weeks of spring.
That’s not what I recall from my many Michigan springtimes. Though summer comes with an abundance of beautiful produce at the markets, spring’s approach is slow, with many dreary days tucked between the sunny ones. Summer in Michigan is so incredibly good, but man, it makes you wait. So the first things that enter the market are a miracle of sorts. After months of root vegetables and greenhouse-grown hearty greens, there, suddenly, is rhubarb, with its slender stalks and pretty pink hues, and next to it, asparagus, in bunches of bright spring green.
And that’s it! But it is enough. After all of that winter drudgery, it is magic itself. When one has spent months waiting for a hint of warmth and for fresh produce to enjoy once again, rhubarb is a precious thing. It’s hard to feel the same when you’ve been gorging on ripe avocados and gorgeous citrus all winter long.
This is one of the things I miss about my home, I have to say, and a feeling I don’t want to lose. There’s something special that you learn when you’ve had to struggle through cold and snow to get to the warmth of summer. There’s something about not having that makes you endlessly grateful for everything you get. And when you get rhubarb, during my childhood at least, you put it into quick bread with a rich brown sugar crumble that makes everyone feel spoiled at breakfast (where cake is not typically allowed), and you make pies—one with a top crust, one without—and you revel in the abundance, and you are reminded why it was not foolish to be hopeful after all.
And so I shall keep on waving the Midwestern rhubarb flag, with gusto. But if you make this cake, I think there’s a good chance you’ll be ready to do the same.
Rhubarb Polenta Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
Nigel Slater, again—I know! But it’s the season for this cookbook, and I tell you, the man knows how to prepare fruit. This cake is exactly my style, with a jammy rhubarb layer tucked between a crumbling cornmeal crust. It’s somewhere between cake, pie and cobbler, and it is divine. The rhubarb syrup is a really lovely touch, too.
FOR THE FILLING
1 pound rhubarb, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup natural cane sugar
1/4 cup water
FOR THE CRUST
3/4 cup coarse polenta or cornmeal
1 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon natural cane sugar
Zest of 1 small lemon
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan
2 – 4 tablespoons almond milk (or use cow’s milk)
1 tablespoon coarse sugar, such as demerara
Lightly butter an 8-inch cake pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and pt a baking sheet in it to get hot as the oven heats.
Put the rhubarb in a baking dish. Scatter over the sugar and water. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the rhubarb is soft but still retains its shape. Put the rhubarb in a colander to drain, reserving the juice to serve with the cake.
Combine the polenta, flour, baking powder, cinnamon and sugar in a food processor. Add the lemon zest and butter. Blitz for a few seconds, until you have something that resembles breadcrumbs.
Break the egg into a small bowl and mix with 2 tablespoons of milk, then blend into the crumble mix, either in the food processor or by hand. Take care not to overmix—stop as soon as the dry ingredients and liquid have come together to form a soft, slightly sticky dough. If it isn’t a little sticky, add a touch more milk.
Press about two-thirds of the mixture into the cake pan, pushing it about 3/4 inch up the sides of the pan.Make sure that there are no holes or large cracks. Place the drained rhubarb on top, leaving a small rim around the edge. Crumble lumps of the remaining polenta mixture over the fruit with your fingertips, and don’t worry if the rhubarb isn’t entirely covered. Scatter the coarse sugar over top.
Place the pan on the hot baking sheet and bake for about 50 minutes, then cool slightly before attempting to slice or remove from the pan. Serve in slices, with the reserved rhubarb juice.