A rhubarb cake for spring

I expect my relationship with rhubarb is like many other people’s. As a kid, it almost made me gag. Except for gooseberries I can’t think of a fruit (I know it’s a veg, but whatever) that I detested more. It was so mushy. At one point I was also convinced that going anywhere near the rhubarb plants in the backyard would result in instant poisoning, which didn’t help our relationship. (My sister didn’t harbour the same reservations – in her 'scullery maid phase' around the age of nine, she took to wearing a very fetching rhubarb bonnet made of an oversized leaf strung through with a pink ribbon.) At some point in my twenties though, I got over the mushiness and fear of rhubarb leaves and went totally gaga for it. I think it’s just one of those flavours, like fresh coriander, that you’re not supposed to like until you’re old.

Here in London, we tend to get our first spring rhubarb about the same time we get our first daffodils. Both have been around for quite a few weeks now, and while I’ve been out and about admiring the flowers, I’ve been exceptionally lazy in getting my hands on this pink and perky veg.

Why the hesitation, I don’t know, because I’ve had a rhubarb recipe primed and waiting to be tried for the past five weeks. Nigel Slater’s (yes, there’s more Nigel love on the blog today) Observer Magazine column is one of Sunday’s simple pleasures for me. He tends to focus on one ingredient, and while almost every week provides something interesting, his recent column on rhubarb recipes included a cake that practically leapt off the page at me.

I finally got around to making it this weekend. And all I can say is WOW. Because as much as I love Nigel, his recipes can actually be a bit of a gamble. He doesn’t always hit the nail on the head. But this was one of the nicest desserts I’ve had in a long time. Thanks, Nigel! Nail – head – hit!

Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake
Recipe from Nigel Slater’s column in The Observer Magazin
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I’d call this a crumble cake – the dough is more crumble-like than cake-like, and I could see this making a scrumptious topping for a fruit dessert.

Filling:
500g (1 pound) rhubarb
50g (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
4 Tbsp water

Cake:
125g (1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp) coarse cornmeal
200g (1 1/3 cups) all purpose or plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
150g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
grated zest of a small orange
150 g (1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp) butter, diced
1 large egg
2-4 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp demerara or dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F. Grease a 20cm / 8in cake pan, preferably loose-bottomed or springform. If you don’t have one, use a regular cake pan but grease very well, line the bottom with a circle or parchment paper, and grease again.

Trim the rhubarb and chop into pieces a couple of inches long. Put in a baking dish with the sugar and water and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the rhubarb is soft but still retains its shape. Drain the fruit and set aside you can reserve the juice to serve with the cake if you wish.

Put the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, cinnamon and sugar in a large bowl, or in the bowl of a food processor or a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Add the grated zest and the butter. If using your hands, rub the butter in as if making pastry – until the mixture resembles large crumbs. If using a food processor you just need to blitz for a few seconds, and if using a stand mixer, mix on low to medium speed for about 30 seconds.

Break the egg into a small bowl and mix with the milk. Now add slowly to the crumble mix, stopping as soon as everything has come together to form a soft, sticky dough. You may not need all the liquid, or you may need a little more milk to get the right consistency.

Press about two thirds of the crumble mixture into the bottom of the cake pan, pushing a couple of centimetres up the sides of the pan. Place the rhubarb on top, being careful to leave a small rim around the edges uncovered. Crumble the rest of the mixture over the fruit in fat lumps, using your fingers – don’t worry if the fruit isn’t all covered. Scatter over the brown sugar.

Bake for 40-45 minutes. Cool the cake a little before removing from the pan.