Shockingly pink is seldom a good description. I’m thinking of paint-aisle regrets two gallons in. Pepto Bismol. The gummy tube of lipstick from your first makeup Caboodle. But, occasionally, nature surprises (and delights!) with a shade of pink so intense it appears manmade: flamingos, redbud trees in bloom, and in late spring, rhubarb.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have some growing in your garden. Most of us aren’t that lucky. So those who know will trek down to the market and pay a pretty penny for the pretty stalks because rhubarb’s tart, green-apple flavor is worth savoring. Nicknamed the “pie plant,” rhubarb is typically combined with plenty of sugar and baked into homey desserts. Strawberry is rhubarb’s usual pairing—a duet so classic, however, that rhubarb is rarely presented without the lavish sweetness of strawberries. Along the way, the bright, mouth-puckering pleasure of rhubarb has been drowned out.
A simple rhubarb upside down cake, modeled after the elegant French tarte tatin, offers a fine chance to get reacquainted with rhubarb. Butter, lemon zest, and vanilla pitch in to mellow the tartness, while caramelizing the stalks intensifies the deep magenta color. In less than ten minutes, you’ll have a fragrant, pink compote of sorts, swimming in a rhubarb syrup. Lay down a quick dough over the rhubarb and slide the cast iron skillet into a hot oven. Later, invert the skillet to reveal a cake with a delicious crumb and a jammy, pink underside. Surprisingly, shockingly pink. You will have no regrets.
Rhubarb Upside Down Cake
1 ½ c. sugar, divided
4 Tbs. cold, unsalted butter, plus 1 stick and 6 Tbs. cut into cubes
Zest of one lemon
1 Tbs. plus 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. salt, divided
1 ¼ lb. rhubarb, sliced into 1-in. pieces
2 ½ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 c. whole milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Whipped cream, for serving (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Melt 1 cup of the sugar, 4 Tbs. butter, lemon zest and juice, vanilla, and ¼ tsp. of salt in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Once melted, add the rhubarb and cook, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb is tender and slightly caramelized, 6 to 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together remaining sugar and salt, plus flour and baking powder in a bowl. Using your fingers, cut remaining butter into the flour mixture until it forms rough pea-size pieces. Add milk and eggs and stir until a soft, sticky dough forms. You may need to add a little more milk for the dough to come together.
3. Spreads clumps of dough over the hot rhubarb mixture, trying to cover the entire surface. If there are any holes left, the dough will fill them in as it bakes. Place skillet on a baking sheet in the oven and bake until the cake is golden and cooked through, about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and let the cake rest for about 10 minutes. Place a large, flat serving platter on top of the skillet and invert quickly. Serve warm or at room temperature with fresh whipped cream.
Recipe adapted from Kenzi Wilbur of Food52
Photography by Jivan Davé