Rhubarb and Rose Upside-Down Cake

We haven’t made a cake for awhile and Rhubarb and Rose Upside-Down Cake seemed like a no-brainer.  Some pale pink rhubarb for spring, a note of the exotic in the rose water, the whole thing delivered in as folksy and unpretentious American a package as one could imagine–an upside-down cake.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Pineapple upside-down cake was a backyard staple in the neighborhood of my youth.  Everyone made them.  A homey confection baked in a square pan topped with rings of canned pineapple, sometimes punctuated with maraschino cherries whose incandescent red color would bleed into the neighboring pineapple rings.  Part of the thrill of eating it–and eating it quickly–was getting the syrup of caramelized pineapple and brown sugar that ran over the top and down the sides of the cake as it was overturned.

Jody kept after this cake until the entire house was satisfied with the outcome.  You can read about the variations in her notes below.  Until this week we’ve never had a do-over on a cooking session and photo shoot, but as they say about opera, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” and the fat lady wasn’t singing after the test run, or even after the second attempt.  We think the result was worth the effort.

For newcomers to the world of upside-down cakes–you bake and eat them same day, preferably as close as possible.  No leftovers.  The cake still tastes good 24 hours later, but the bloom fades off the rose–the gleaming fruit goes dull.  Make one of these when your divorced-and-remarried sister is coming over with her second husband and all of their kids, or when you’ve volunteered to bring dessert for the dinner party of ten.  Any occasion where nobody’s too scrupulous about asking for seconds.  We’ve all gotten very measured in our responses to dessert.  Once in awhile you have to turn the world upside down.

Rhubarb and Rose Upside

Down Cake


Topping Ingredients:

  • 1½ pounds rhubarb
  • 1½ cups light brown sugar
  • 2 ounces unsalted  butter
  • 2 tablespoons rose water
  • 2 tablespoons grated ginger

Cake Ingredients:

  • 1½ cups unbleached all purpose flour (6 1/2 oz)
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½  cup Greek yogurt (I used 0% fat, but 2% or full-fat would work as well.)
  • ¼ cup rose water–the label should read ingredients: “distilled rose water”


  1. Wash the rhubarb, trim the ends and cut into 2 inch lengths.  Toss in a bowl with half the brown sugar.  Cover and let sit overnight.
  2. Be sure all the ingredients are at room temperature the next day before you start making the cake.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. To make the topping, remove the rhubarb from the bowl and reserve on a plate.  Pour the sugar and juices that have collected at the bottom of the bowl into a 10-inch cast iron pan.  Add the remaining brown sugar and butter and cook over medium heat, whisking until smooth and the bubbles are about ½-inch across, about 3 minutes.
  5. Stir in the ginger.  Turn off the heat.
  6. Lay the rhubarb stalks over the sugar mixture to cover completely.  Distribute any extras evenly over the first layer.
  7. To make the cake, put the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and baking soda together in a bowl and whisk until well combined.
  8. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter with a paddle attachment until light, about 2 minutes.   Add the granulated sugar in a steady stream and then beat at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.
  9. Add the eggs  one at a time and beat until light. Remove the bowl from the stand.
  10. In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt with the rose water.
  11. Working by hand, use a rubber spatula to alternately fold the flour and yogurt mixtures into the batter, beginning and ending with the flour.
  12. Pour the batter over the rhubarb and smooth the top.
  13. Bake on the lowest rack of the oven for 70-80 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.  This is a dense wet cake so extra time in the oven helps.
  14. Cool 10 minutes in the cast iron on a rack, and then carefully flip the cake out onto a plate.  I like to use a bit of parchment paper and a plastic cutting board so I can slide the cake around where I like.  If you want to guild the lily, serve with a mixture of sweetened whipped cream and yogurt.

Jody Notes:  

I had my heart set on making a rhubarb and rose upside-down cake.  Doesn’t that sound exotic and cool?  But I am so not a baker.  I consulted numerous cookbooks and tried it with hazelnuts and walnuts, with orange zest and orange juice, with 1 teaspoon salt and with just ½ teaspoon salt, with 2 eggs, then with 4 eggs.  Oh, and let’s not forget the whole-egg recipes vs the separated-egg versions.  Get the picture? 

No one was happy with the first version.  The cake’s texture didn’t offer enough contrast with that of the rhubarb.  When cooked, rhubarb is soft, very soft.  Roxanne had her own criticism–she thought the orange flavor was too strong, that it overpowered the rosewater.   Ken helpfully offered that that the upside-down cakes of his childhood were all about the the goopy stuff  on top, and my cake, according to Ken, wasn’t goopy enough.  I’ll spare you a blow by blow description of all the variations, but I had to make the cake 3 times before everyone was happy with the result. 

So what worked?   

  • A COOK’S ILLUSTRATED recipe suggested cornmeal for crunch.  I liked that idea, so I used it.
  • I killed the oranges. I threw the nuts overboard too–they didn’t improve the texture and as my pastry chef Susan Abbot said, they detracted from the flavor of the rhubarb. 
  • Did you know that 4 ounces of butter comfortably accepts 2 whole eggs or 4 yolks, but not 4 whole eggs?  Now you do.  So do I.  You’re welcome.
  • By cake number three, my mantra was “simplify, simplify” and so I went with 2 whole eggs.  Separate the eggs and whip the whites for a slightly lighter textured cake. 
  • A cup of brown sugar and 2 ounces of butter are typical for an upside-down cake  topping, but since Ken wanted a goopier fruit top I bumped up both by half.  No more complaints on the goop.

22 thoughts

  1. I love rhubarb–it’s the base of my favorite childhood dessert, and I can’t wait to make this! (Especially since, with all that testing, it’s sure to be foolproof!) Just a few days ago I was thinking I need to use my rosewater–was going to add it to strawberry muffins but had tweaked too much already and it would have been one piece of jewelry too much. I see this uses 1/4c, so that will solve that problem handily. I didn’t realize there were different types of rosewater–I see you specify that it needs to be “distilled’?

    • Sara,
      I am not a rose water expert and I may have spoken up too soon. My point is that there should be no additives. The bottle that I used, made by Cortas, lists “distilled rose water” as the only ingredient. Let me know if you have any more info. I’d love to know more.

      • I get mine from the spice house (I do big spice orders from them, I love their jars)–I don’t know much more than that but I figure their stuff is probably the right stuff. I’ve always wondered how that (and orange blossom water) is made since it’s not with alcohol.

  2. That rhubarb cake looks as attractive as Meryl Streep did on the cover of Vogue a few months ago. Looking forward to trying this. Quel coincidence. I’ve got a rose water-inspired recipe going up on the next installment of Slice of Mid-Life. We must be susceptible to spring.

    • Meryl Streep, VOGUE, high praise! I hope your spring is better than ours–after an early spring that felt like mid-summer, we now have a late spring that feels like last November. One takes one’s seasonal pleasures where one can. Rhubarb is one of mine. One of my guilty pleasures is scarfing up a bunch of the stuff in the winter (from hot houses in Holland) and making a puree to eat with yogurt. I know, it’s bad, carbon footprint and all that, but it sure beats the pants off the flavor of other fruit being flown in or taken out of storage . I’ll look for you rhubarb recipe. Ken

  3. It’s recipe for Turkish rose cookies. Not much in the way of spring here. It’s pouring. I’m glad I’m not the one coaching or attending soccer practice tonight. Let me eat cake. Rhubarb cake.

  4. I guess rose water is the new “it” flavor. I almost always use it when I cook rhubarb; maybe I’ll try a rhubarb rose-scented ice cream inspired by this….Also, Jody, no matter how experienced a baker you are, do-overs for cakes are pretty much pro forma. Every time I “do” a cake recipe, my admiration for baking cookbook writers escalates.

    I agree with Ken, upside down cakes are all about the goop factor. I grew up with the same pineapple upside down cake as you Ken (the only cake my mother knew how to bake; actually the only thing she could ‘cook’ when she was first married.) Now I make it every year, with fresh pineapple, hold the maraschinos. It’s the only birthday cake for F, and he will eat most of it if we don’t invite people over to share it. I wonder if he would accept this variation? Looks fab.

  5. Hi, Sally–I think I’d have a way easier time writing a sourdough bread book than I would a cake book. I’m too much of dessert klutz. I can’t quite shake the feeling when I’m baking a cake–despite have successfully completed a recipe many time before–that the whole venture is a roll of the dice, something I never feel with bread, or with savory food. Oh well, to each his own vulnerabilities.

    On another note, I recently came across rose harissa–which is presumably just what it sounds like, harissa with rose petals as one of the ingredients. Still trying to get my hands on a jar. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for commenting. Ken

    • Hi Steve–How generous of you! The top picture was a fluke (the very last shot of the day), not even a real slice, but the end of slice that I was too full to eat after several hours of shooting and “testing” the last version of the cake. But I liked the sedimentary side view so I said what-the-hell and set up the tripod. Never put your camera away, because you just never know… Thanks for the compliment. Ken

  6. Wanted to report back that I made this and loved it! I was nervous about using so much rose water but trusted you, especially after three iterations on your part, and it was perfect. (I am used to warnings about overdoing on orange flower water and I think of these in tandem). I didn’t include the rosewater in the rhubarb topping though–I’m not sure if I’m misreading but wasn’t sure when to add and so i just skipped it in the end. I absolutely loved this batter as well, I can’t wait to use it with all sort of summer fruits. Having not really made too many upside down cakes I’ve always been nervous about things releasing from the pan but then I heard the satisfying plunk and saw the parchment wrinkle around the perimeter of the pan. Maybe I’ll even try a tarte tatin!

    • Sara–You did EXACTLY what you were supposed to do. The rosewater in the topping ingredients list is a mistake–that’s why it doesn’t appear in the directions. As soon as I finish this reply I’m going to remove it. I glad the cake was success–we’ve gotten a lot of unbelievable-it-actually-worked! comments from people, which is incredibly satisfying. I too love the *plop* of the cake on the parchment. Thanks. Ken

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