Ahhh, rhubarb. There are few other spring crops that call to me like rhubarb does, saying good weather and hot sunny days are imminent (the others being stars of their own Spotlight on Spring posts this season).
Rhubarb is a weirdly named plant whose imprecise origins are somewhat confusing. It was purportedly used in Central Asia from antiquity as a medicine, and also in common use among ancient Arabs, Romans and Greeks as a foodstuff. It was “discovered” by Marco Polo on his travels to China in the late 1300’s.
Interestingly rhubarb is a vegetable, though it is most often, at least in Europe and North America, used in culinary applications as a fruit. The stalks can be eaten raw, as they have a crisp texture like celery (though not related to celery), and a very strong, tart, rather astringent flavour that is pleasurable to those who enjoy such things. I have a memory of wandering my backyard in late spring as a small child with a little dish of white sugar and a stalk of rhubarb (dip, dip, CRONCH!). Rhubarb is most commonly cooked with sugar or another sweetener, with or without spices and other sweeter fruits to balance the tartness, and is used in pies, crumbles and other desserts, or stewed with a thickener to be used in jams and compotes. It can also be used to make alcoholic drinks such as fruit wines or mead.
The colour of rhubarb stalks can vary from the commonly associated crimson to speckled pink to light green, but colour is not related to its suitability for cooking.
While rhubarb is often available year-round due to hothouse production, in temperate climates, rhubarb is one of the first food plants harvested, usually in mid- to late spring (April or May in the Northern Hemisphere, October or November in the Southern Hemisphere), and the season for field-grown plants lasts until the end of summer.
If you’ve never cooked or baked with rhubarb before, don’t worry. If you can’t find it at a nearby farmer’s market or in your CSA box, it’s also sold in the grocery store as separate, leafless stalks (the leaves are toxic to consume due to being high in oxalic acid, which can really mess up your kidneys), and look very much like celery with a sunburn, haha. To prep, wash the entire stalk, slice off both ends and prep as per your recipe’s instructions.
The most common recipe that is thought of when considering rhubarb is the classic Strawberry Rhubarb Pie; this version from website Sally’s Baking Addiction is fantastic and well worth trying.
However, if you’re not a fan of the strawberry-rhubarb combo (for example, my beloved late father-in-law thought it was an abomination, and was not shy about telling me his opinion every.single.spring), maybe try this delicious Rhubarb Pear Crumble from BBC Good Food.
As for me, I felt that while both of the above were yummy recipes, I wanted to develop something completely different…and so I went the cake route and created a rustic, hearty “snackin’ cake” that is delicious eaten in chunks straight out of the pan (ask me how I know).
Rhubarb Cranberry Spice Cake
YIELD: 10 servings | PREP: 20 mins | BAKE: 45-55 mins
- ½ cup/115g unsalted butter or non-dairy coconut oil
- 1½ cups/330g dark brown sugar, packed
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 tsp/5mL pure vanilla extract
- Zest and juice of 1 orange, about ¼ cup/60g (I used 2 mandarin oranges)
- 1 cup/250mL milk (can also use non-dairy milk)
- 1½/188g cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup/100g rolled oat flour, or 1 cup rolled oats, blended/milled into flour
- 1 tsp/5g baking powder
- ½ tsp/3g salt
- 1 tsp/3g cinnamon, ground
- ¼ tsp/0.5g allspice, ground
- ¼ tsp/0.5g ginger, ground
- ¼ tsp/0.6g nutmeg or cloves, ground
- 2 cups/250g fresh or frozen, thawed, finely chopped and drained rhubarb
- ¾ cup/75g fresh or frozen, thawed, roughly chopped and drained cranberries
- ¼ cup/50g granulated or vanilla sugar
- ¼ cup/20g rolled oats
- 1 tsp/3g cinnamon, ground
- 1 pinch each ground ginger, allspice and nutmeg or cloves
- Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C; place rack in middle of oven. Prep a 13″ x 9″ rectangular baking dish with butter or pan spray; set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and brown sugar for several minutes until fluffy and light in colour. Beat in egg and vanilla until well-combined.
- Stir the orange juice into the milk and set aside for at least a few minutes to curdle.
- Sift the AP flour, oat flour, baking powder, salt and spices, and add to the creamed mixture along with the orange zest.
- Add the milk in 3 batches, beating well after each addition.
- Fold in the drained and squeezed rhubarb and cranberries until well-combined.
- Combine topping ingredients; set aside.
- Pour into prepared baking dish; sprinkle topping ingredients overtop.
- Bake for 45-55 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time. Check for doneness with a toothpick or cake tester. Remove from oven and cool completely on a wire rack.