Rhubarb Cinnamon Polenta Cake, with Thanks to Nigel Slater
Berkshire native Alana Chernila, local politician, mother of two, and author of the new cookbook, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making (Clarkson Potter), dispenses change and peak-of-the-season cooking ideas at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. Lately she has been devouring Nigel Slater’s latest book, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, from which she adapted this recipe for rhubarb, which is cropping up like wild in our region.
There are only a few plants growing in my garden right now. I’ve been trying to get out there to get my seeds in, but still, it patiently waits. But now, there are chives, and sorrel, and mint. And then, of course, there is rhubarb.
Years ago, I was driving down Tyringham Road. This is a beautiful stretch of road between Lee and Tyringham in our corner of Western Massachusetts, with a valley and mountains and enticing winding roads coming off of it every which way. I was in the car with my friend Molly’s mother Lin, although I can’t remember why. She is a true urban gardener, and for decades now, she has maintained a one or two wonderful little plots of land filled with food and flowers. We drove by a small ranch house on that street, and right by the driveway, there were a few potted rhubarb plants and a handwritten sign–rhubarb $5. Lin pulled over, claiming that this was the rhubarb for me.
“I can tell. These plants are going to do well.”
She’s a scientist, and she knows these kinds of things. So I bought my plant, and I took it home, and I put it in the ground.
Now, when it comes to gardening, I often feel like I’m groping around in the dark. I am surrounded by gardeners and friends who are usually happy to answer even my simplest questions, but still, I feel like I have to plant and water and see something grow in my yard in order to know how it works. (That is, if it works–otherwise there are different lessons to be learned!) I am looking forward to some time decades from now when I can say I really know how to garden, and when the success doesn’t shock and amaze me every time.
But this rhubarb and I–we started a relationship then and there. And every year it comes back, poking out of the ground with its prehistoric and ungraceful looking foliage, and I cheer and I feel like a queen (even though it comes back without an ounce of help from me). Then I greet it with a torrent of new rhubarb recipes. The plant always produces deep into the summer, and by then I have other things to bake, and so every visitor has to wait as they’re walking out to their car while I holler, “Hold on! Let me send you home with some rhubarb!” True story. Ask anyone.
This a good and upstanding rhubarb cake, full of complexity and self respect. The batter involves uncooked polenta, which gives the whole shebang a bit of crunch. It’s a perfect tea snack and is even better on the second day. Around here, it also served quite nicely as a breakfast. I don’t know anyone who would say no to a piece of this with a cup of dark coffee.
It’s adapted from a recipe by British gardener and food writer Nigel Slater; I feel like he would be happy that I have altered it to my own tastes. This cake also doubles beautifully.
Rhubarb Cinnamon Polenta Cake
Adapted from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard
For the filling
1 pound rhubarb
1/4 cup superfine sugar
4 tablespoons water
For the crust
3/4 cup coarse polenta
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (he calls for “a pinch”)
1/2 cup superfine sugar (he calls for 3/4 cup)
Grated zest of a small orange
10 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large egg
2 to 4 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon demerara sugar (granulated will do here if that is what you have)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put a baking sheet in the oven. (You want it to get hot, you’ll use it later in the recipe.) Butter an 8-inch springform cake pan, then line the bottom with parchment.
2. Cut the rhubarb into into 2 to 3-inch pieces. Put them into a baking dish, scatter them with the sugar and water, and bake for about 30 minutes, or until soft. Drain the fruit in a colander and reserve all of the cooking liquid to serve with the cake later.
3. Meanwhile, put the polenta, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sugar into the bowl of a food processor and give it a quick pulse to mix. Add the orange zest and butter and pulse again several more times until the mixture is uniform and the butter is the size of small peas. Beat the egg with 2 tablespoons of milk, and add that mixture to the batter while pulsing again, stopping as soon as you have a soft, sticky batter. Add a bit more milk if it’s not sticky.
4. Press about two-thirds of the batter into the cake pan with a wooden spoon or your fingers, taking care not to have any holes. Cover with the drained rhubarb–then put lumps of the remaining batter over the rhubarb, leaving holes for the fruit to poke through. Scatter the demerara sugar over top.Place on the hot baking sheet in the oven and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until slightly golden.
Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before removing from the pan. Serve with the cooking liquid drizzled over top, with something creamy on the side (creme fraiche, ice cream, or Greek yogurt). —Alana Chernila