Nothing says Spring like the bright freshness of rhubarb, the earliest vegetable to come to life in our garden each year. Everything about rhubarb is delightful. It’s not fussy. It’s tough—it can take spring’s unpredictable temperature swings. It’s reliable, coming back bigger and stronger every year. It’s a showoff with its gargantuan leaves and showy, red stalks.
Perhaps its only flaw is that rhubarb needs winter’s cold to thrive. As a child of the hot South, I’d never even heard of rhubarb before that fateful summer when our family camped our way to visit my Minnesota cousins. I’ll always remember the moment Aunt Ruth handed me a saucer of deliciousness in the form of a triangle slice of rhubarb pie. I fell in love right then and there. Unfortunately, it was years before I made my way to a climate where rhubarb would thrive and I could bake my own rhubarb pies.
It’s images of pie that dance in most of our heads when we hear the word rhubarb, but this odd vegetable has lots of other culinary uses, too. Jam, for one (mm-m good). There are rhubarb breads, rhubarb wines, and non-alcoholic rhubarb drinks. We’ve even made rhubarb pickles. They’re more pulp than anything else, but I think they make a nice condiment, and they give a flavorful kick to stir-fry. I was surprised recently to learn that rhubarb is also used in savory dishes. You can find over 300 rhubarb recipes in the online Rhubarb Compendium. But you won’t find this recipe for Skillet Upside-Down Cake there.
I swear, this cake gives rhubarb pie a run for its money. While it doesn’t pack quite the puckery, acidic wallop as its counterpart with crusts, it still has enough tang to be interesting, which makes it a good way to introduce rhubarb to young, inexperienced palates.
Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Oven: 350 degrees
Don’t you just hate it when you start mixing up a recipe only to discover these dreaded words: butter, at room temperature. Well, consider yourself forewarned. Don’t start mixing until you’ve given your butter a chance to warm up.
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups (about six stalks) rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces
½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature (See? I told you.)
1 cup white sugar
2 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup milk
To make the topping, melt the ¼ cup of butter in a cast iron skillet.* Add brown sugar, stirring constantly until it melts and the mixture gets all bubbly. Remove from heat and layer pieces of rhubarb on top of butter-sugar mixture. You should have enough rhubarb to cover the pan in a more or less single layer.
In a mixing bowl, cream room temperature butter and white sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in salt and baking powder. With your mixer on a low setting, mix in flour, about a ½ cup at a time, alternating with milk and ending with the flour.
Pour batter over mixture in skillet. Batter may be so thick that you’ll need to dollop it into the pan by the spoonful, instead, and then gently spread it to even it out.
Bake about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of cake and about halfway down (not so far that it encounters the rhubarb) comes out clean. (I always start checking after about 30 minutes. You don’t want it to get too dry.)
I never have the courage to turn my cake out onto a plate so that it really is upside-down, though the Gnome has had success with that method. If you want to give it a shot, let the cake cool a few minutes (5-10 max), loosen the edges with a knife and invert onto a serving plate.
Serve alone or with ice cream or whipped cream.
NOTE: If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, you can substitute a nine-inch square cake pan. Heat your butter-sugar mixture in a frying pan or saucepan and transfer it to your baking pan before adding the rhubarb pieces.
Abundant is too tame a word to describe well-established rhubarb. If you have some in your garden or a corner of your yard, you know what I mean. Tune in right here in the coming weeks for a few more ideas on cooking with rhubarb.