Rhubarb Shows Off Its Stripes

Posted May 15, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

There’s nothing tricky about making a great-tasting rhubarb cake, and there are plenty of recipes out there to prove it. But making one that’s also pretty? That’s more of a challenge.

With its high moisture content, rhubarb quickly disintegrates when it’s heated, turning into a beige mush that doesn’t reflect its rosy elegance when it’s intact.

Poaching the rhubarb in sugar syrup can help. The sugar lightly candies the stalks, helping them keep their shape while sweetening their intense tartness. Poaching also allows you to add flavorings. Vanilla is a classic choice, but you could just as easily throw in a few cardamom or star anise pods, a curl of lemon zest, or a couple of slices of fresh ginger root.

Be sure to keep the aromatics on the lighter side here. After poaching the rhubarb, the sugar syrup is boiled down into a glaze to be brushed over the cake, adding shine and moisture. Too much star anise, or any other ingredient for that matter, can become bitter when reduced.

The cake itself — a buttery, moist poundcake flecked with vanilla beans — is plenty good on its own. I often make it without fruit, but I like it even more in rhubarb season, when the poached stalks add a tangy, syrupy juiciness that somehow makes the cake seem lighter.

It’s a real beauty, too, with the top of the loaf covered in glistening stripes of rhubarb. Buy the reddest stalks you can find. They will fade to lipstick pink after poaching, and are more eye-catching than the pale green ones (which still taste just as good, if that’s what you have).

While you may be tempted to lay the rhubarb lengthwise across the cake, crosswise is much more practical when it comes to serving. The stalks are easier to slice this way, giving each piece an equal amount of the jammy topping.

To keep the poached rhubarb from sinking into the cake batter — which is decidedly not pretty — I add it to the top of the cake after the batter bakes and sets for 20 minutes. Do this carefully: The pan will be hot, and you don’t want to singe your fingers.

Your reward will be a thing of beauty, a pink-striped stunner that’s perfect for spring.


Rhubarb Poundcake

Yield: 12 servings

Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling

8 ounces rhubarb stalks (about 3 to 4 large stalks)

1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped with the tip of a knife and reserved

1 cup (225 grams) unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan

1 2/3 cups (200 grams) cake flour, plus more for flouring the pan

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/3 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped with the tip of a knife and reserved

1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1. Cut rhubarb stalks to fit crosswise inside the top of a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. (They should be about 5 inches, but they could also be a little less.) You’ll need enough rhubarb to cover the top of the cake in the loaf pan, plus a few extra pieces in case any split during poaching.

2. In a medium pot, combine sugar, 1 cup water and the vanilla bean and seeds, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Stir in rhubarb, simmer for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Cool to room temperature, then slice rhubarb in half lengthwise so you have long, thin pieces. Reserve poaching liquid.

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees, and butter and flour the loaf pan. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, vanilla extract and vanilla seeds.

5. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl between each addition. Beat in half the flour mixture until just combined, then beat in milk mixture until barely combined, scraping the sides of the bowl. Beat in remaining flour mixture until just combined.

6. Scrape half the batter into prepared pan, then lay half of the rhubarb slices in an even layer on top of the batter. Cover with remaining batter, smoothing the top.

7. Bake cake for 20 minutes to set the top, then remove pan from the oven and quickly lay the remaining rhubarb slices next to each other on the top of cake. Return pan to oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the cake’s center comes out clean, another 30 to 50 minutes.

8. While cake is baking, bring rhubarb-poaching liquid to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer; continue to simmer until thickened and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Brush some syrup on top of cake once it comes out of the oven. Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack before serving, at least 2 hours, then carefully remove the cake from the pan and serve.