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
- 1½ pounds rhubarb
- 1½ cups light brown sugar
- 2 ounces unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons rose water
- 2 tablespoons grated ginger
- 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”
- 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.
- Be sure all the ingredients are at room temperature the next day before you start making the cake.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- 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.
- Stir in the ginger. Turn off the heat.
- Lay the rhubarb stalks over the sugar mixture to cover completely. Distribute any extras evenly over the first layer.
- To make the cake, put the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and baking soda together in a bowl and whisk until well combined.
- 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.
- Add the eggs one at a time and beat until light. Remove the bowl from the stand.
- In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt with the rose water.
- Working by hand, use a rubber spatula to alternately fold the flour and yogurt mixtures into the batter, beginning and ending with the flour.
- Pour the batter over the rhubarb and smooth the top.
- 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.
- 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.
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.