Who doesn’t love a good upside-down cake? It took me a while to hone and tweak this one to perfection. I wanted a cake that wasn’t overly sweet, in other words something I wouldn’t feel guilty eating for breakfast. Or as a friend pointed out when she taste-tested it, more of a “tea cake” then a “cake cake”.
I also wanted an extra moist cake that could be made with whole wheat flour and still produce a very tender texture. Well it turns out one of the best-kept secrets for an ultra-moist and tender cake is…. oil! Yes, using oil instead of butter makes for a cake that’s reliably moist. And since it won’t dry out as quickly as a butter-based cake, this cake keeps well for days (if you can keep it from being devoured for that long). I chose olive oil for this cake, for its fruity aroma. I simply use our standard kitchen olive oil, an organic extra virgin type with a fairly robust taste. It lends a beautiful depth of flavor that is surprisingly subtle and delicate, despite the whole cup called for in the recipe. You can really use any oil you have at home, so long as it’s not too intensely flavored.
Cardamom and rose water felt like the perfect aromas to complement the tartness of the rhubarb and the three together are truly a match made in heaven. However, if you’re not a fan of those flavors, you could substitute with some orange zest and vanilla.
Yes, I did get all fancy pantsy with the rhubarb pattern on that cake. In all honesty, it was a bit fiddly and time consuming to get the geometry right, kind of like making a puzzle. A fun challenge but you need a bit of time of your hands. Rest assured that simply laying down rhubarb pieces side by side will also result in a perfectly exquisite upside-down cake. One thing that’s key for this cake’s good looks though is to get your hands on some bright red rhubarb if you can. A little green rhubarb is fine, and in fact it’s ideal as having both red and green pieces will allow you to play with fun color patterns. An all-green rhubarb cake on the other hand just doesn’t look quite as nice, in my opinion. Still every bit as delicious though!
At this time last year, my own rhubarb patch was hopelessly devoid of red and I thought I was doing something wrong. But after a little research, I learned that there are all kinds of different rhubarb varieties. Some varieties just don’t turn very red. Who knew? I always kind of thought of rhubarb as just, well, rhubarb. So at my local garden store last spring, I asked if they had a red stalked rhubarb variety and did they ever. I came home with two pots of scraggly-looking but bright hot pink rhubarb shoots called “Canada Red”. As a Canadian living in the US, it seemed fitting for me to grow a Canadian variety as a little ode to my country. I immediately found a spot in my garden for the new plants and crossed my fingers and toes it would be happy there and survive our cold New York winters.
Lo and behold, this spring, some bright red stalks came popping out of the ground with great vigor! My brain immediately got to work on ways to showcase their vibrant color. First thing I made were some drinks. Strawberry rhubarb kombucha turned out to be the best drink I’ve ever made with such a pretty pink sparkle. But this cake. Oh this cake! I’m quite proud of it. It’s one I’ll definitely be making for years to come and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.
- For the bottom:
- 4 tbsp butter, melted
- Around 1 1/2 pound of fresh rhubarb stalks (preferably bright red)
- 1/2 cup cane sugar
- For the batter:
- 2 cups whole wheat flour (or 1 cup all-purpose + 1 cup whole wheat for a lighter cake)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 cup cane sugar
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup milk (can be plant-based)
- 3 large beaten eggs
- 2 tsp. ground cardamom
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 2 tbsp rose water
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Line bottom of a round 8 inch baking pan (3 inches deep) with parchment paper.
- Cut your rhubarb stalks to fit snugly at the bottom of the pan in an attractive arrangement, flat side down. (If you wish to make the geometric pattern I show in the video, you’ll need to cut the stalks on an angle with the cut side as close to the same length as the uncut side as possible. (Using rhubarb stalks that are uniform in width will make this easier).
- Once your rhubarb pieces are all snuggly packed like sardines at the bottom of the pan, sprinkle 1/2 cup of sugar on top of the rhubarb, aiming for even distribution. Pour 4 tbsp. melted butter all over, as evenly spread out as you can. With a spatula, gently nudge the sugar and butter around to try to ensure coverage of all the rhubarb, but don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be perfect since it will all melt into a caramel in the oven.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cardamom, salt, baking soda and baking powder. In another bowl or stand mixer, beat together the olive oil, sugar, beaten eggs, milk, orange juice and rose water. Once the liquid mixture is silky and uniform, add the dry ingredients and mix everything together until just combined (small lumps are ok but try to avoid large lumps). As with any cake batter, don’t overmix it.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan, to cover the rhubarb. Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and let it cool in the pan for about 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, invert the cake onto the rack, carefully peel away the parchment paper, and let the cake cool, about 2 hours. (If the cake has risen and domed out a lot while baking, you may want to slice off the top rounded part before inverting it, so the cake sits on a flat base – it’s also a great way to get a sneak taste of the cake and no one will ever know! 😉
Disclaimer: Rhubarb leaves are toxic, be sure to remove them and discard them safely, keeping them away from pets and children.
Yield: 8 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.