Elsie’s Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake

Blogs have birthdays.  Who would have imagined, a mere decade ago, that the little space we write in daily, or weekly, or monthly, or whenever we can, would become so important in our lives that we would want to celebrate its anniversary?

Food Blog June 2013-1512As I look back, it turns out that I started writing in my own little space almost five years ago.  But I haven’t celebrated its bloggy birthday, nor will I when I do roll over the half-decade mark, because my schedule of blogging was, at least near the beginning, so sporadic.  It doesn’t seem like I’ve really been writing here for five years when for three of those five, you were lucky to get a post a month.  The nice thing about WordPress, though (which I’ve been using quite happily for all of those almost-five-years), is that it tells you how many posts you’ve actually made.  And this, friends, against all belief, is number 200.  Two hundred!  That, to me, calls for a bit of celebration.  Let’s have cake!

Food Blog June 2013-1506Food Blog June 2013-1509This cake needs to be about the edging warmth of late spring, and freshness.  It needs to be something I could never have imagined making 200, or 150, or even 100 posts ago.  It needs to be original and tart-sweet and humble but delicious.  It’s not a show-off cake, but it stands up for itself.  It’s simple and tasty and equally good as afternoon snack, as dessert, and as a bit of a naughty breakfast.  It also, as it turns out, needs to be dairy-free.  Let me explain.

A few months ago, my aunt asked me to make something sweet.  But her granddaughter, Miss Elsie, can’t have dairy products.  No milk, no cheese, no butter.  No whipped cream.  No gelato!  I’ve met Elsie once.  We went on a glorious, sunshiney, beachy, too-much-food-and-certainly-too-much-wine family reunion trip.  The twelve of us – sisters, cousins, uncles, husbands, nieces – shouted and guffawed and flip-flopped our way up and down the three stories of a pool-bearing beach house in North Carolina for the better part of a week, and in the middle of this trip, Elsie tasted her first ice cream.  It was dark chocolate, made entirely with coconut milk, and her first taste, once the chill evaporated, was the purest expression of joy I’ve ever seen.  The kid was hooked.  The shirt she was wearing – white and pink with docile little flowers – was never the same.

Would I come up with something sweet, my aunt asked, that she could make for Elsie?  You got it.  This is an easy little cake, with just a bit of cornmeal for texture.  Butter and milk are replaced by applesauce for moisture and olive oil for deep, rich flavor.

But it couldn’t be just a cake.  If it was already going to be about family, I decided, I needed to go whole hog.  Our reunion trip was, in part, a joyous memorial for my grandparents, who used to vacation in North Carolina many, many years ago.  Transported by this connection, I was pulled back into their old backyard, and I could see Nana’s rhubarb bush at the back corner of the house.

Food Blog June 2013-1458Food Blog June 2013-1461I don’t know whether Elsie likes rhubarb, but from that moment on, rhubarb was it.  I chopped and simmered down a heap of the strange, red stalks, with some quartered strawberries for a different kind of sweetness, and a shower of sugar until it collapsed into a thick, stringy jam.  Think rhubarb floss, but in the most delicious possible way.

Food Blog June 2013-1462Food Blog June 2013-1474Once cooled slightly, a respectable layer of the strawberry rhubarb compote gets smoothed over the top of the bright golden cake, and then baked.

Food Blog June 2013-1483Food Blog June 2013-1489In the oven, the cake puffs and firms, but the rhubarb layer keeps it moist.  The fruit itself, exposed fully to the heat, gets sticky and slightly caramelized, and the edges turn almost molasses-dark.  This is a great, easy cake for a simple dinner party, in part because it is gorgeous – the dark pink top layer looks glossy and impressive – but just as importantly because this cake actually tastes better on the second day.  The compote cools and mellows, and the hit of vanilla in the cake is so right against the rhubarb.

Food Blog June 2013-1494I know rhubarb season is ending, but if you find some in your grocery store and can’t decide what to do with it, make this cake.  It’s easy and pretty and delicious, and it looks as at home, I think, on a simple plate as it does on a cake platter.  And if you miss the rhubarb, try straight simmered strawberries, or slices of plum, or maybe even peach jam, and take this cake directly from spring to summer.

Here’s to 200 more.  I hope you come along for the ride.

Food Blog June 2013-1501Elsie’s Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake

Makes one 9” cake

Strawberry rhubarb compote
5 cups rhubarb chunks from 1-2 lbs rhubarb
1 pint strawberries, washed, hulled, and quartered
½ cup sugar
  • Tumble the fruit into a medium pot, shower on the sugar, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit collapses into a stringy, jammy puddle.  This should take 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and depth of your pot.
  • Set the compote aside to cool while you mix up the cake batter.
Cornmeal Cake
1 ½ cups flour
½ cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup smooth applesauce
½ cup olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Preheat your oven to 350F and grease the bottom and sides of a springform pan with olive oil or nonstick spray.
  • Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.
  • In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat the eggs and sugar until the eggs become pale yellow and increase in volume; about 2 minutes.  This extra volume – air you’ve beaten into the eggs – contributes to the structure of the cake.
  • Add the olive oil, applesauce, and vanilla, and mix to combine.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in thirds, beating just to combine after each addition.  This helps hydrate the batter more evenly, and it gives you a fighting chance of emerging from this baking session without getting flour all over yourself, your countertop, your floor… Not that this sort of thing ever happens to me…
  • Scrape-pour the thick, gloppy batter into your prepared springform pan and use a spatula to smooth it into an even layer.
  • Strew about 1 ½ cups of your now-cooled compote over the top of the cake, creating a thin but complete layer across the batter.  You will have plenty of leftover compote, which is a wonderful thing because it is delicious on top of toast, or bagels, or ice cream, or straight off of a spoon.
  • Carefully place your now-loaded springform pan in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out with just a few gummy crumbs clinging to it.  Transfer to a wire rack and pop the spring to let the cake release from the sides of the pan.
  • Cool completely, then refrigerate – this cake is best the day after baking.  Bring it to room temperature before serving.

*Word of warning: it is easy to overbake this cake, because the semi-liquid layer of rhubarb means the top of the cake will not brown.  Thus, it will seem like it’s still underdone.  Remember, though, this cake is better after it has spent the night in the fridge.  As it sits on your counter, cooling off for its sleepover, it will continue cooking for a while.  So even if your toothpick seems to be telling you that all is awry, chances are things are going to be okay.  Try a cautious prod closer to the edges if you need some reassurance.

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6 thoughts on “Elsie’s Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake

  1. Chelsea – I am so touched that you came up with a cake recipe for Elsie – I can’t wait to make it for her! Nancy (Aunt Nana to Elsie) and I had a little “girls getaway” trip last week and one of the things she brought me was a baggie filled with frozen, cooked rhubarb from her yard (which I believe came from Nana’s original plantings). So I’ll grab the cooked rhubarb (already sugared) from the freezer, add some stewed strawberries to it and make a “Chelsea-Nancy-Nana Narr” dessert to serve Elsie, and of course everyone else too. What an absolutely delightful, yummy, love-filled cake – thank you so very much!!!

    • Kathy,
      I loved getting the challenge from you to make something sweet for Miss E., and am glad this came out so well. Julie told me your version was awesome, so I’m pleased that it all worked out. Let me know if you want me to try anything else!

  2. Beautiful! Sounds like a perfect cake alright. I’ll have to come up with an excuse to make it – I make one olive oil cake, and love it, but cakes without butter are still mostly new for me. This one looks really worth attempting. And – 200, wow! Congratulations!!

    • Hannah,
      Thanks! Butterless cakes are new to me as well, though I have one I make with vegetable oil that I think actually stays moister than a buttery sponge. From what I understand, since butter is part water, the same quantity of oil actually provides more fat and therefore more moisture, because there is no water to evaporate out during cooking.

      • Interesting isn’t it? My dad claims that he has always made banana bread using only olive oil, for this very ‘scientific’ reason – I have no recollection of growing up with olive-oil quick breads, but whatever! I can’t wait to give this cake of yours a try…

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