I was never a rhubarb fan growing up. The only way I would suffer through the strong sour taste was when my very Minnesotan grandmother would make strawberry rhubarb refrigerator jam using strawberry Jell-O mix.
But here in Southeast, even a terrible gardener (I’m speaking about myself here) can grow jurasically large rhubarb plants. I also never considered myself a baker. That’s probably part of the reason rhubarb was never something I was inclined to use, because it is often shown to its best advantage with a good dose of sugar in something warm and fruity.
All of this changed when I discovered the flavor combination of spruce tips and rhubarb. The sweet citrus notes of spruce tips, when combined with bright tart rhubarb, has become a seasonal treat that I literally spend the whole year dreaming up ideas about. For the first season of Eating Wild, I published a winner of a recipe for a Rhubarb and Spruce-tip Galette. This year it’s a decadent, elegant and simple cake.
This is essentially a take on Marian Burros’ famous (and perfect) Plum Torte recipe. It’s a great excuse to use the biggest, gnarliest rhubarb stalks on your plant, and keeping those stalks in large chunks means you get delicious in-your-face hits of rhubarb, the juice of which then seeps down into the surrounding spruce tip-infused batter. Be sure to leave at least a little space around each piece of rhubarb to ensure that your cake can rise up between the pieces and get beautifully browned and caramelized.
We’re now at the tail end of spruce-tip season, although they can still be found in shadowy nooks up at elevation. This recipe can be made without spruce tips, and you can easily sub in just about any type of stone fruit for the rhubarb, but for the classic version, use about six or seven halved plums, cut-side down, and top with cinnamon sugar instead of spruce-tip sugar. If leaving out the spruce tips, expect to reduce your cooking time by about 10 minutes.
Rhubarb & Spruce-tip Cake
Prep: 15 minutes active, 70-80 minutes total
Makes: 8 generous slices
1 cup sugar
1 cup spruce tips, finely diced
1 cup butter (room temp)
1 tsp lemon zest
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 large rhubarb stalks, cut into 2 inch pieces
Combine spruce tips and sugar ahead of time, either dicing the spruce tips by hand and combining with the sugar, or throwing the spruce tips and sugar into a food processor for a couple of seconds. Allow for the spruce tip and sugar mixture to stand for at least 30 minutes in the fridge, but you can do this step the night before.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Saving aside about a tablespoon of spruce-tip sugar, cream the butter, remaining spruce-tip sugar and lemon zest together until fluffy. Mix in eggs. Slowly add flour, baking powder and salt until just combined. Using a rubber spatula, scrape batter into a 9-inch springform pan and smooth until evenly distributed. No need to grease the pan, there’s already plenty of butter in this recipe.
Press rhubarb chunks flat side down into the top of the batter, spaced so that the batter can push up between the pieces. Sprinkle the reserved spruce-tip sugar over the rhubarb. Bake 55-65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean (although likely shining with all that rhubarb juice and butter). Let cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes. Remove from the pan and let stand for another 5-10 minutes before slicing. Best sliced with a serrated bread knife to easily cut through the rhubarb.
Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for added decadence! And honestly, if it’s possible, I think this cake might be even more delicious the next day after all of the cooked juices have had time to really absorb into the cake. Once cooled, cover and refrigerate overnight and then warm up the next day just before serving.
• Erin Anais Heist is a food blogger in Juneau. Readers can contact her at foodabe.com, or on Instagram or Twitter at @erinanais. “Eating Wild” recipes publish every other week.