In the recipe file I inherited from my mother, there are precisely six recipes under the letter "R." All of them, in one way or another, involve rhubarb: rhubarb bread, rhubarb pie, rhubarb jam. It has become my rite of spring to make each of the six recipes once while rhubarb is in season, and having accomplished that, save my taste for rhubarb for another year.|
That is sometimes easier said than done. In truth, rhubarb is one of my great culinary loves. I love the tart bite of it, love it as one of the first fruits of the garden, love even the word itself -- how the vowels "oo" and "ah" in the middle of the rhubarb, a touch of amazement tucked inside the name. But above all, I love my grandmother's rhubarb cake, and my memories of peering over her kitchen counter as a little girl to find a sheet of it cooling at eye level.
So, it's not entirely accurate to imagine I make six different rhubarb confections each spring -- I make five of them at least once, and I make rhubarb cake again and again. The taste of it comes as close as possible to rhubarb perfection, to my mind. Rather than mask the taste of rhubarb, this cake plays it up by pairing it with tangy buttermilk, then adds a distinct layer of cinnamon sugar on top. Biting into a slice, you experience the sweetness and the tartness separately, a little duet of flavors.
Even so, I found myself wondering this year if I couldn't tinker with the recipe a bit (I wouldn't dare use the phrase "improve upon it"). Traditionally, the cake is served in Pyrex baking dish, which is fine enough, but I wondered if a variation couldn't be made that would be just a little more dainty for special occasions like a Mother's Day brunch.
I rolled up my sleeves and started baking. My first instinct was to try making it in a bundt pan, and instead of topping it with cinnamon sugar, I'd use one of my favorite cake-baking tricks: replacing the flour with cinnamon-sugar when greasing and flouring the pan. No go. The resulting cake, in which all the rhubarb sank to the crown, came out looking like a Christmas wreath that had been mauled by bears. (It was, nonetheless, delicious. "Keep trying!" my husband encouraged, between mouthfuls of failed cake.)
I next tried baking a layer of cinnamon-sugar crumbs into the center of the cake. The baked cake broke in half along the cinnamon-sugar fault line. Then I turned to another tart recipe for a lemon bundt cake and tried replacing the lemon with rhubarb. The cake looked beautiful, but the rhubarb barely was detectable. I began to consider making a rhubarb syrup to soak the cake, but that seemed to just be getting farther and farther away from what I loved about my grandma's cake.
Finally, I found myself in the kitchen of a friend, sharing our recent baking woes. For her part, she had been inspired by a recipe for baked doughnuts to try making dozens of them for a housewarming party, only to realize she didn't have a doughnut pan or know where to get one. I told her they were inexpensive and could be found in hobby shops or purchased online. I had gotten mine at a garage sale.
"I love it," I told her. "They're great because you avoid the hassle and added calories of frying doughnuts, and using the pan you can convert almost any cake recipe into a doughnut with just a little tinkering. ..." It was the proverbial light-bulb moment.
The next day I was in my kitchen, pulling a beautiful, golden batch of rhubarb doughnuts from the oven, having made just a few modifications to the cake recipe. The results were earthy and moist, but once I tossed them all in cinnamon-sugar to coat, the doughnuts came into their own: a little crunch on the outside, tender on the inside, and a beautiful harmony of sweet and tart throughout. "You've got it," my husband exclaimed, biting into one. "How long before you make more?"
Baked rhubarb doughnuts
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons buttermilk powder
2/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup finely diced rhubarb
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Using a whisk, combine flour, 3/4 cup sugar, soda, salt and buttermilk powder in a bowl and mix until uniformly blended. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, water, egg and vanilla extract; add to flour mixture and mix to create a thick batter. Fold in diced rhubarb. Grease a doughnut pan well. Spoon batter in the molds, filling each halfway (this will not seem like much batter, but that is OK). Bake until doughnuts are lightly golden, edges are just starting to pull away from the pan, and a toothpick inserted midring comes out clean, about 18-20 minutes. Run a thin, plastic spatula or the dull edge of a butter knife around the outside of each doughnut to help release them from the pan, then invert onto a wire rack. Combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon in a shallow bowl. One by one, dip and twist each doughnut in the cinnamon-sugar mixture, coating both the top and bottom. Return to wire rack to cool completely. Makes 12-14 doughnuts.