Do You Like Rhubarb? You Will After This. Guaranteed
John wore a suit to work every day.
Right after high school, he had gotten a job as an office boy and went to college at night. He ended up in sales, working in buildings full of offices five days a week for the next 40 years.
He married at 22, was a father at 24 and had three children by age 30. He supported a family — a wife and three daughters — working hard and long, traveling often and being moved around by employers every three years or so: to Long Island, N.Y; New Hampshire; Syracuse, N.Y. (twice); Schenectady, N.Y; and Hummelstown. He put his three daughters through fine colleges.
When you look at photographs of this sales executive when he was young, images of the TV show “Mad Men” come to mind. But unlike the glamorous hijinks in the world according to Hollywood, John’s life was much more normal. On the weekends, he spent his time with family. He did chores around the house. And he baked. Sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes, cookies, fruit crisps. After all, what could be better than fresh baked goods made with butter and brown sugar?
So when John gave me a recipe for fresh rhubarb cake and told me that it was a wonderful, light, sweet confection, perfect for breakfast or dessert, I sat up and listened. After all, John knows cake. And now, retired in Landisville, John has been growing his own rhubarb almost from the time he and wife Barbara moved here in 1999.
And he’s still baking, almost every weekend. He makes cookies and brownies with his grandchildren, cakes and breads for family events and a large batch of Christmas stollen that is worthy of a story of its own.
Three years ago John gave me two rhubarb plants that he divided out of his own patch. They have been growing profusely in my garden ever since, one of my favorite harbingers of the new season. When the rhubarb pokes up through the ground, I know it’s time to get my vegetable garden ready.
Now it’s May, and on the tables at Central Market fresh rhubarb abounds, great piles of it at all the local fruit and vegetable stands. It’s at its peak for the next month or so, until it gets hot, so I’m constantly on the lookout for wonderful new ways to cook with rhubarb. (Got any great recipes? I’ll try ’em!)
Last season I ran one of my favorite rhubarb recipes, grilled pork tenderloin with rhubarb chutney (email me, and I’ll send it to you). So this year I’m baking a cake. But not just any cake. This is a fresh rhubarb cake that no less an authority than John — my father-in-law —calls “the best cake I’ve ever made.” We made one this weekend. We agree.
FRESH RHUBARB CAKE
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups coarsely chopped fresh rhubarb
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Cream the butter until light, then add the brown sugar slowly until the mixture is well-blended and fluffy. Beat the egg and vanilla into the mixture until well-blended.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Sift again.
In a separate container, combine the milk and lemon juice.
Alternate adding the dry ingredients and the milk mixture to the creamed butter, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat after each addition just enough to blend.
Gently fold the rhubarb into the batter. Pour into a buttered and floured 9-by-13-inch pan.
In a small bowl, combine the pecans, granulated sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle evenly over the batter. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes (325 degrees for a glass baking pan).
Cool 30 minutes before serving.