I swore once I started a writing a food blog that I would never write about the weather. It seemed like a sure sign that you just didn’t have any better ideas and were complaining because you had an audience. But when you’re living in the Pacific Northwest and spring is a slog through months and months of chilly rain, it’s hard not to find yourself obsessively checking radar maps, mumbling about the unfairness of it all, and dreaming of east coast spring.
I grew up in the south where the only nice time of year as far as I was concerned was the spring. And children’s books, magazines, and tv ads all agree that spring is about blooming flowers, bright sunshine, singing birds, and lovely pedicures in shades of pink. Here in Bellingham there’s no chance our toes will see the light of day for at least another three months, sigh, and we won’t be out rolling around in fresh meadows unless we wear a rain coat and want to get very muddy. Everyone tells you when you move here that you can get used to the rain, and it’s true. But I still find that after seven years here I just can’t quite shake the memory of what spring is supposed to be like and have to drag myself through April, May, and yes even June.
Facing cold spring rain lashing our window panes, I decided to manufacture a little spring of my own. One of my go-to cookbooks written by the owners of my favorite bakery in Portland Baker and Spice is Rustic Fruit Desserts. It’s organized by season so you can cook delicious baked goods that reflect what’s fresh at the market. I’ve gone to this book time and time again. I’m never able to get through all the recipes for a season so my copy is stuffed with post-it-notes marking recipes to try out next year, and I love flipping through it anticipating the fresh fruit of another season.
I’m a sucker for lemon. I love the brightness lemon brings. The combination of crisp and cool flavors make lemon the perfect starting point for a cake that tastes like spring ought to. I also love buttermilk. It adds a subtle complexity of flavor and slight tang to baked goods. When in doubt when I’m making pancakes, waffles, cakes, or muffins, I swap in buttermilk for regular milk. More often than not you see rhubarb paired with cloyingly sweet strawberries. I know that they’re both the first harbingers of spring, but here in the NW, the first rhubarb shows up at the market in April while the first strawberries lag by several months. Plus I like how this cake is not too sweet, allowing more of the fresh, bright flavor of rhubarb to come through. Somehow by combining three sour flavors the resulting cake mellows and presents a richer, lighter flavor than a dessert featuring any one of these flavors.
Tips and Tricks:
- If you take nothing else away from this recipe, remember this: Always let a bundt cake rest for at least half an hour and preferably until it’s fully cooled before attempting to take it out of the pan. I can’t stress this enough. The whole beauty of bundt molds is the lovely shape they impart on cakes, and if you take the cake out of the pan before it’s cooled enough, you risk ruining the whole endeavor. This recipe calls for only letting the cake rest 30 minutes so you can spread the glaze on while it’s still slightly warm. I think it’s fine to let the cake cool fully if you’ve got a bundt pan with more edges than the traditional rounded edges of a bundt pan and then reheat slightly in a warm oven (250 degrees or less) so you can still get the glaze dripping but without burning the cake. I let the cake cool fully and didn’t reheat and the glaze was fine, just a little less fluid.
- In order to give yourself the best shot possible to getting the cake out clean, make sure you fully butter the pan and all it’s little cracks and crevices. I like to use the wrapper of the butter I’ve let come to room temperature for the recipe and make an initial coating in the pan. I always leave out some extra butter to bring to room temperature and use this wrapped in the butter wrapper to finish the job. You should have a thin coating that’s visible on the inside of the pan. You don’t want to have so much that there’s big globs of butter since that will brown in the oven and prevent you from having the even, golden hue you’re going for.
- Flipping a cake out of a pan can be intimidating. I always use the following technique. First I take a thin paring knife or small offset spatula that you use to ice cakes and run it around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. You don’t want to pry the cake away too violently or poke it with the blade since we’re interested in maintaining the shade of the bundt pattern. I take a light, flat melamine plate with wide edges that fully covers the cake pan with several inches on either side. I then firmly place my thumbs on the plate, pushing down on the cake pan and grip the sides of the pan with my fingers. In one clean motion, I then swoop the pan upside down with the plate now on the bottom. If I didn’t hear the cake fall, I give a few gentle downward shakes until I hear it fall. If I am not able to get that to work, I don’t keep shaking harder but simply turn the pan back over and run the spatula or knife around the edges again a little more thoroughly and proceed as before.
- Never ever use confectioners sugar without sifting it first. Clumps of all different sizes tend to form in the sugar and if you don’t break these up by sifting, you won’t be able to achieve a smooth, uniform glaze; you’ll be left with little lumps. If you don’t have a sifter, a fine mesh colander will work just as well. And if your confectioners sugar is a bit on the older side, feel free to sift more than once to ensure you have no clumps left.
- When spreading the glaze, use an offset spatula (a thin metal spatula at a slight angle) and never lift up but rather smooth the icing in continuous, fluid movements. If you do pick up the spatula, you risk pulling some of the top of the cake with it and then mixing crumbs into the smooth icing.
Lemon Rhubarb Buttermilk Bundt Cake
A lovely, bright tasting spring cake that’s great for showcasing the first rhubarb crop of the season. I slightly adapted the recipe from Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson to allow for a smaller bundt pan and less sweet cake. If you use the typical 10-ounce sized pan, you can either scale up by 1/3 or use the recipe as follows and have a slightly less tall bundt cake. Feel free to double the glaze recipe for more of a coating that drips down the sides in lovely rivers of icing that look a little too much like rain drops for my taste.
Quantity: a 9 ounce Bundt Cake – more than you think you’ll need but you’ll polish off every last crumb and lick the plate
Time to Prepare: 1 hour and 15 minutes
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons for coating the rhubarb
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 ounces butter (a stick and a half of butter)
zest of one lemon
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 pound rhubarb trimmed and very thinly sliced (1/4 inch or less) – roughly 3 cups
Juice from half a lemon
1/2 tablespoon of room temperature (soft) unsalted butter
1 cup sifted confectioners sugar (plus more as needed)
Before you start making this recipe, take the butter out in the morning to ensure it has plenty of time to come to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-ounce bundt pan covering all the nooks and crannies.
To make the cake, sift the 1 2/3 cup flour with the baking powder and salt into a medium sized bowl and set aside. Toss the sliced rhubarb with the 2 tablespoons of flour using your hands to get a light coating of flour on all the slices and set aside.
Using a stand mixer or handheld mixer with beaters, cream the butter, sugar, and lemon zest on medium-high speed until light and fluffy (usually 3 to 5 minutes). Then add the eggs one at a time, scrapping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula after you add each egg to ensure thorough mixing of the ingredients. On low speed, stir in the flour mixture in three additions alternating with the buttermilk in two additions. Scrap down the sides of the bowl occasionally.
Fold by hand using a spatula half the rhubarb into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the remaining rhubarb on top.
Bake for 30 minutes, then rotate the pan to ensure even cooking on all sides and cook for an additional 30 minutes or until the top of the cake is firm, lightly golden and the center springs back when lightly touched. Since you’ll be flipping the cake over, feel free to use a tester as well; it should come out cleanly with no batter left clinging to it. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes before inverting and removing the pan.
To make the glaze, whisk the lemon juice, softened butter, and confectioners sugar together until smooth. The mixture should be thick but spreadable. If it’s not the right consistency, you can add more powdered sugar to thicken the glaze. Try adding a tablespoon at a time. Spread the glaze over the cake as soon as you take it out of the pan so that the warmth of the cake helps the glaze stay more liquid and drip nicely down the sides.