I am a fan of simple tea cakes. I almost always prefer them to towering layered cakes with mountains of frosting. (Well, with one possible exception: the Vienna Mocha Torte at Rose’s Bakery in Portland, Oregon.) Also, I never again want to see a thick custard layered with cake. Not ever. When Costco started layering their sheet cakes with custard, I knew it was time to take a stand. A warm pudding cake, on the other hand, is quite another proposition and always a treat.
Tea cakes, bundt cakes, coffee cakes, pudding cakes, and pound cakes were the kind of old-fashioned cake that my farm-raised, Mennonite grandmother always made. “Nothing fancy,” she would say, but fresh from the oven, fragrant, and utterly delicious with a pot of freshly brewed tea.
Grandma Mary liked to put prunes, plums, pears, applesauce, and even jelly into her tea cakes. She always served them plain, with a bowl of whipped cream on the side. My own preference is to include tart fruits, such as rhubarb, sour cherries, apricots, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Just like Grandma though, I like to serve these cakes very simply, with just a dusting of powdered sugar, a poof of whipped cream, and for special occasions, perhaps a drizzle of fruit sauce on the plate
Somewhere along my baking path (San Francisco, circa 1980s), I discovered Italian pastries and the notion of adding cornmeal to a cake batter. This was not a notion that Grandma had ever entertained. I was hooked from the first golden, crunchy bite.
By now, I have a repertoire of cornmeal cakes, this one being the latest. Over the next few years, I’ll share them all with you. In the spring and summer, I like these simple cakes on the lighter side, almost always with fruit and perhaps with herbs and floral aromatics as well, such as thyme, rose petal, and lavender. In the fall and winter, I like deeper flavors, winter spices, and perhaps crunchy nut streusel layered with the batter and crumbled on top of the cake.
Once you have a basic cake batter that you trust, you can improvise endlessly with it. This cake batter, for instance, incorporates an acidic ingredient (sour cream), which gives the cake an extra tender quality, along with old-fashioned flavor.
I love buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream, Mexican crema, crème fraîche, and even cream cheese in a cake batter. You should be able to substitute one for another in this recipe, as long as the consistency remains about the same as for sour cream. Cream cheese must be whipped and then thinned with milk before using.
Now, a few words to describe this cake. OH! MY! GAWD! Seriously, MauiJim and I were nearly speechless when we put the first bite of this cake into our mouths. When he did finally speak, his exact words were, “This is unbelievable.” We both had a second serving within minutes of eating the first. Let’s see what YOU think. J
Rhubarb Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake
I can’t decide if I prefer this cake upside-down with the pale pink, glistening rhubarb on top or upside-up with the lovely browned cake on top. I leave it to your discretion.
Whatever you decide, upon your first bite of this anise-scented, tender cake, you won’t care how it looks on the plate.
The ethereally light texture of this cake is the result of the proportions of the ingredients but also, I believe, of the steam that is created from the sauce at the bottom of each ramekin.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 cups trimmed, ½-inch diced rhubarb
1 teaspoon anise seed, pulverized with a mortar and pestle
1¼ cups King Arthur’s all purpose flour
½ cup fine yellow cornmeal
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool room temperature
¾ cup superfine sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large egg yolks, lightly whisked, cool room temperature
¾ cup sour cream, lightly whisked, cool room temperature
powdered sugar in a shaker
softly whipped, lightly sweetened heavy cream
Rhubarb Sauce, optional
- Coat six, 1¼-cup capacity, ramekins with vegetable spray. Place on an edged baking sheet and reserve.
- To make the rhubarb topping, in a small sauté pan, melt the butter and stir in the brown sugar. Bring to a full boil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the rhubarb and anise, and cook for 1-2 minutes more, until the rhubarb releases its juice into the sauce.
- Evenly distribute the rhubarb and sauce into the ramekins.
- To make the cake, sift the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda into a medium mixing bowl. Reserve.
- In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, with the mixer set at medium speed, cream the butter and sugar until very light and creamy, about 5-6 minutes, scraping the bowl frequently.
- Add the vanilla and incorporate.
- With the mixer set at medium-slow speed, add the beaten egg yolks, bit by bit, making sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next. If the mixture begins to curdle, increase the speed of the mixer.
- With the mixer set to slowest speed, add first ¼ of the flour mixture, then 1/3 of the sour cream, and repeat until the last portion of flour is added. Do not overbeat. Just incorporate the flour mixture and sour cream briefly and then finish incorporating by hand with a flexible spatula.
- Spoon equal amounts of the cake into each ramekin, filling no more than ¾ full. Using an offset spatula, level the batter in each ramekin.
- Bake at 350° for about 25-28 minutes, until the cake is risen, nicely browned on top, and registers 175°-180° at the center of the cake when measured with an instant-read thermometer.
- Remove the cakes from the oven, let rest for 5 minutes, then invert each onto a dessert plate. (Alternatively, you can leave the cakes at cool room temperature up to 2 hours, and then reheat a couple at a time in the microwave for 30-60 seconds to loosen the caramelized fruit.)
- Dust each serving with a little powdered sugar, and serve with clouds of whipped cream and Rhubarb Sauce if desired.
Makes 6 individual cakes.
More Rhubarb Posts You Might Enjoy
- Fresh Primer: Rhubarb
- Rhubarb Cardamom Lime Muffins
- Apple Cider-Brined Tenderloin of Pork with Rhubarb Deglazing Sauce
- Spring Rhubarb & Apple Crisp with Toasted Hazelnut Streusel
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