New Recipe: Rhubarb coffee cake: Proof that ‘a recipe is a river’

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A recipe is a river. So said someone, somewhere, once upon a time. I thought perhaps it was Jacques Pepin, but after searching through his books, his website and the entire world wide web, I cannot find a single reference anywhere to the line. So perhaps it was not Pepin, the famous French-born American engineer-turned-chef who said this. Nor anyone else, either. Maybe I merely dreamt it.

It makes perfect sense to me that a recipe is like a river. A river ebbs and flows. It meanders and travels. It sometimes dries up and sometimes floods. It keeps changing but for the most part remains the same, more or less, though never exactly. Once the water travels down a river, new water follows. In this way, it is never quite the same river, it is always shifting, always changing, even if imperceptibly. This is very much like a recipe. Most recipes are neither new — nor static. They are variations on a theme. Like rivers, recipes keep shifting, travelling — things get added and subtracted, but elements of the original always remain.

Recipes change because ingredients change, as do cooking times, methodologies and cooks. And even when following a recipe carefully, no two people will produce exactly the same result. Some recipes evolve over time, because of changes in technology and cooking techniques. Where once we cooked on open fires, during the 1800s we shifted to cooking in, and on, cast iron stoves. Later still came gas ovens and electric ovens (the first electric oven was thought to have been invented in 1882, by Thomas Ahern, an Ottawa engineer and businessman). Changing technologies means changing recipes. Where once steamed puddings were commonplace, with the advent of the electric oven and hence steady cooking temperatures, cakes became much more popular.


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The recipe below for a rhubarb cake is a perfect example of a recipe that has shifted through time. Countless variations of this same cake exist. And almost all of them would have originated from early steamed rhubarb pudding recipes, such as Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s Boiled Rhubarb Pudding, which appeared in her book, Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-day Cookery, London, 1865. The pudding called for four or five sticks of “fine” rhubarb, one-quarter pound of moist sugar, and three-quarters of a pound of suet-crust. Once the pudding was assembled, it was to be tied up in a floured cloth and plunged into boiling water and boiled for two to two and a half hours. It was best, Mrs. Beeton suggested, “served with a jug of cream and sifted sugar.” If you substitute butter for the suet and add vanilla and an egg, the ingredient list is pretty much that of a standard, contemporary rhubarb cake.

Rhubarb is such a useful and tenacious plant — thriving in all sorts of conditions, requiring next to no maintenance and coming back faithfully year after year. Plant it once and you have a lifetime source of free food. The leaves are one of nature’s most potent natural pesticides. The cheerful red stalks are a harbinger of spring — generally one of the first edible things up in the garden every year. Rhubarb has a number of useful medicinal and nutritional qualities. And best of all, it’s so tasty. Rhubarb just makes good sense.

Rhubarb is excellent in pies, crumbles, cheesecakes, cobblers, crisps, cakes, jams, chutneys, rhubarb curd, wine and even cocktails, such as the BBC’s Rhubarb Gin:


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This old-fashioned rhubarb cake recipe, chosen here for the simplicity of ingredients that are likely to be had on hand, is adapted from Let’s Break Bread Together, by the United Churches in Canada, 1988. A nearly identical version of this cake appeared in The Harrowsmith Cookbook, Volume Three, 1987, and several other contributor cookbooks of the era, proving once again that a recipe travels, adapts and shifts, but the gist of it remains, just like a river.

Lindy Mechefske is the award-winning author of Out of Old Ontario Kitchens and Sir John’s Table. Watch for Ontario Picnics coming in April 2021. Contact via

Simple Rhubarb Coffee Cake


1 ½ cups brown sugar

½ cup butter, at room temperature or softened

1 egg, beaten

1 tsp vanilla essence

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 cup buttermilk (or equivalent amount of milk soured with lemon juice)

1 ½ to 2 cups of chopped rhubarb


½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tbsp butter

Generously butter or grease a nine-inch round pan or a nine-by-nine-inch pan.

To make the cake:

The original recipe just says to mix all the ingredients together. I would stir in the rhubarb gently after mixing the other ingredients.

Pour or spoon the ingredients into the prepared pan.

Mix the topping ingredients together and sprinkle over the batter.

Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream, custard or whipped cream.

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