Rhubarb Crumble Cake

April 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

There are things that everyone tells you about parenthood. You will never sleep again. You will fall deeply, unimaginably in love. You will miss the days when your baby was inside and always with you. Your life will change. You stubbornly protest that it’s easy to stick the child in the car-seat and dine out. Your life will change, they say again.

There are things that no one tells you about parenthood. You will do anything, ANYTHING, to hear your baby laugh. You will frequently lose all perspective, both for the good and for the bad. You will know every pore, follicle and fold of flesh of your child, more intimately than you know your own. Some days you will stand at the top of the stairs, holding the baby, watching the clock and waiting for someone else to come through the door and take him, just for 5 minutes even. Other days you will move and play as if one combined being again, anticipating each other’s moves, laughing at the same things. Those are the fun days.

Another thing everyone tells you: you will need help. You will need support. You run through the checklist many times in the last weeks of pregnancy: freezer full of dinners for the early months; changing table stocked with diapers, wipes, creams; multiple changes of baby clothes; overnight online shipping primed and ready. You feel pretty organized and confident. That wasn’t what they meant. What you really will need: a group of supportive, smart, non-judgmental ladies, ready to share their own ups and downs, swap advice, lend an ear. You will need a reason to leave the house good enough to change out of sweat pants, corral your wriggling, possibly screaming, bundle into carrier, car-seat, stroller, and make it somewhere within a 3 hour window. Sometimes the reason is good enough that you don’t even have to change out of sweat pants. As the months go by, making it out the house will become difficult for different reasons: naps, teeth, hunger strikes. You will still do it. You will amaze at the changes in other babies you’ve known almost as long as your own, and look forward to future rites of passage: birthday parties, playdates and more.

I am grateful for all the amazing, inspiring mamas in my life. This cake is for you all, with thanks.

Rhubarb Crumble Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

I made this cake for my moms’ group this week and was just going to share the link to Deb’s recipe, since her cakes are brilliantly reliable and generally un-improved-upon. But then I realized I had made enough changes that it was worth me setting out my own version as well as her one, which you can access in the link above. If you want to skip the step of making the rhubarb compote, Deb tosses rhubarb with sugar and lemon zest and puts this directly on top of the cake batter. I find, however, that cooking during nap times or however you make it work with infants, is easiest in discrete steps, so for me at least it’s better to make a compote one day, and then have that ready to integrate into another recipe a different day. Plus you can make too much of the compote and then spoon it over Greek yoghurt or waffles, oh yes.

Rhubarb Compote
2lbs rhubarb
1 cup dark brown sugar (you can use muscovado if you have it around)
2 tbsp. sherry (or any kind of wine, or you could use orange juice, or even just a splash of water)

This amount of compote should yield twice as much as you need for the cake below.

Trim the rhubarb and slice it into chunks, splitting the stalks in half lengthwise first unless they are very slender. Set about a quarter of the rhubarb chunks to one side. Combine the rest with the sugar and sherry/cooking liquid in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and set over medium low heat. Stir over the low heat until the rhubarb starts to release its juices and the sugar melts, then cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Leave to cook on a low simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and increase the heat to medium. Continue to cook, stirring the rhubarb frequently, for about 10 minutes, during which time the rhubarb chunks should soften and break down. Towards the end of this time, add the remaining rhubarb chunks and then cook for another 5 minutes. You should end up with a thick compote with chunks remaining. If there is still a lot of liquid, continue to cook for another 5 minutes or until the compote is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Set aside and leave to cool. You can keep this in the fridge for about a week.

Rhubarb Crumble Cake
I adapted Deb’s recipe to make an 8×8 square cake. You can use her original measurements for a 9×13 if you are serving a big group (or want leftovers), and still use the compote above instead of the rhubarb tossed in sugar, just increasing the amount of compote you use.

60g/5tbsp butter, softened
70g sugar
1/4 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 large egg
90g all purpose (plain) flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp table salt
1/8 tsp ground ginger
50g sour cream

For the crumble topping
65g all purpose flour
25g light brown sugar (I used coconut sugar which I highly recommend here if you have it or want to try it in baking)
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp./30g unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp. crystallized ginger, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350F/170C. Grease an 8×8 square tin and line the bottom and two sides with parchment paper with one continuous sheet, like a sling (which you will later use to remove the cake). Set aside.

Cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest in a mixer. Add the egg and beat until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl to incorporate all the batter.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and ginger (I like to use a whisk to combine dry ingredients; you can also sift them together if you prefer). With the mixer on slow, add a third of the flour mix, mixing until just combined, then half the sour cream, one more third of flour, the remaining sour cream and finishing with the remaining flour mix.

Spread the batter into the prepared tin. It is likely quite a thick batter so you’ll have to work a bit to get it to spread evenly. On top of this spread the rhubarb compote (about half of the full recipe above). Set aside briefly while you make the topping.

In the bowl you used to combine the flour, make the crumble. Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon and ginger, then mix in the melted butter. You can use your fingers to bring this into a lumpy crumble mix. Scatter this on top of the rhubarb as evenly as you can.

Put the tin into the oven and bake for about 45-55 minutes, until the top is well browned. I found it difficult to test the doneness of the cake with a skewer because of the rhubarb layer but you want the underlying cake to be set through so that a skewer comes out clean (if rhubarb comes out that’s fine so you might have to use judgement). Cut into 2×2 inch squares. The cake is good warm but also at room temperature. I found it best on the first day but you can wrap it tightly and keep for 2-3 days.


Buttermilk Waffles

April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Raising a little Californian, I feel the responsibility of making sure we understand the ins and outs of American culture. We make an effort to say chips and not crisps, garbage rather than rubbish, and so on, lest our little guy be teased for his antiquated vocabulary by a mean preschooler. And while I hope Henry will get to know the joys of a bacon bap in time, I want to make sure he gets the chance to enjoy all permutations of American breakfasting which is, after all, a pretty good tradition, extending through to the early afternoon whenever the excuse provides itself. In our (nearly 6!) years Stateside, we’ve taken on this tough job of embracing the delights of pancakes, French Toast, hashes and eggs all ways. We’ve even come close to understanding that marriage of sweet and savory that seems so particular to American breakfasts: fruit salad on the side of an omelette, bacon on the side of pancakes, maple syrup on the side and top and all around everything. I imagine that the citizenship test involves secretly recording your reaction when a waiter pours syrup on a sausage: delight; you’re in! horror; do not pass go. But it was only recently that we realized there was an entire genre of breakfast goodness on which we were missing out: waffles. It was our parental duty no less, to explore this new terrain.

Prior to a month or so ago, two things would have come to mind when I thought of waffles, neither of which were breakfast. One: Belgium, and the idea of waffles as a snack served from a cart by a man with a Poirot moustache, ideally dunked in a thick mug of hot chocolate on a brisk, dusky day (erm, transport me there right now please). Two: the fast food variety of potato waffles that we ate growing up as a staple dinner side (likely alongside Findus Crispy Pancakes), and the commercial jingle that sticks in my head to this day (“They’re Waffly Versatile”). You will understand why waffles hadn’t been high on my cooking list until recently…


The waffles that have been coming out of our kitchen in the last month are in no way children of the 80s. These are waffles made with multigrain flour blends, speckled with flax, and lightened with buttermilk. They’re topped with yoghurt, nut butters, and the first strawberries of the season. They’re healthy enough that I can imagine them being the centerpiece of a family brunch, once our little guy graduates from applesauce and puree of pear. They’re downright addictive. For a dairy-free, lower gluten waffle that tastes amazing, you can’t go wrong with Sara’s multigrain waffles. Seriously – they were our gateway drug. This weekend I went with a buttermilk centric recipe to use up what was left of the carton I picked up for the lemon loaf. I made up a flour blend with whole wheat, rye and cornmeal, partly because it was what I had lying around to use up, and partly because I was craving the extra crunch from the cornmeal. You can play around with the flour ratios and combinations depending on what you have available: the main thing is to make sure the batter is wet enough (some whole grain flours are more absorbent and will require a bit more liquid) and not to overmix. The toppings are up to you: I can’t resist the Greek yoghurt, strawberry and cocoa nib combo right now. Bacon plus maple syrup: your call.

Buttermilk Waffles
Adapted from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food

2 cups (500ml) buttermilk
3 eggs
8 tbsp/1 stick/115g butter
1 cup/100g whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup/50g rye flour
1/2 cup/70g cornmeal (I used medium grind)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp. sugar (I used coconut sugar)

Whisk the eggs into the buttermilk in a small bowl and set aside. Melt the butter and leave to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients. Pour the buttermilk and egg mix into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined (I like to use a whisk for this, to avoid overmixing). Pour in the melted butter and stir until well mixed. The batter should pour easily off a spoon – you may want to add more buttermilk if it’s particularly thick.

Preheat and grease your waffle iron. I like to set ours to somewhere between 3 and 4 for a good browning. Pour approximately 1/2 cup of mixture into the iron, close, and bake until the iron gives the green light and steam stops coming out of the sides. If you are cooking multiple waffles and want to serve them all at once, preheat your oven to 200F/100C and place the baked waffles on a sheet to keep warm. You can also cool the waffles on a baking rack and then freeze them, reheating under the broiler/grill at your whim.

A Lemony Lemon Cake

April 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Without wanting to sound like an over-scripted response to an interview question, my absolute biggest personal challenge is perfectionism. The character trait has become a cliché in that interview setting because we think it’s the clever answer to give, the admittance of a weakness that, in the work context at least, is actually a strength. Yet in work and in life, perfectionism is no kind of strength. It can be a crippling limitation, something that stops you from trying, from doing anything because you fear that the end result will not live up to expectations, your own and those perceived in others. It stops you from enjoying the journey, because you fixate on the end goal rather than the process and challenges along the way. It makes you judgmental, of yourself and of others. In other words, it sucks.

It’s not like I have suddenly and recently had that AHA! moment of realizing this personality trait. It’s my life’s work in many ways, finding that balance between fulfillment, effort and ease. But, boy, does motherhood bring these characteristics out kicking and screaming. With my gorgeous munchkin about to hit the 7 month mark, I’m starting to feel more pressure (from nowhere but myself I hasten to add) to figure out where the boundaries are between career and caretaker, to reclaim my body but to continue to nurse for another half year or so, to be able to go out late again but have energy for a giggling infant at 6am. And I’ve found myself shying away from decisions because of this pressure: if I can’t practice yoga 6 times a week for a couple of hours at a time, I will barely crack out a forward bend all week; if I can’t put down a few thousand words in one sitting, I won’t write at all, and so on. No more! If nothing else I’ve been keeping some cracking recipes away from you because I haven’t had the time or energy to write more than a few headwords about them. Yes, this is basically a very long-winded way of saying that I might be knocking out some shorter posts over the coming weeks, which means less naval-gazing from me and more food for you. Win-win all round then!

This lemon cake had all the signs of being perfect. I hunted out the recipe while considering the best use for a pile of meyer lemons I scored from a friend’s tree that was groaning with the gems. The promise was high: the recipe called for not only a considerable amount of lemon juice, both in the batter and then in a syrup that you pour over the cake while still warm from the oven, but also for a whole one-third-of-a-cup of lemon zest (for two loaves). No mincing about with a whisper of lemon in the background here, thankyouverymuch. And the author of the recipe was none other than Ina Garten, a brilliant self-parody of the ‘perfect’ life, tablescapes and florist friends and all, but who does know a darned good cake and, I suspect, how to throw a corker of a party.

The baking didn’t get off to the best start, or so I thought. I dutifully removed the butter and eggs from the fridge to come to room temperature when I first got out of bed, planning to knock out the cake during Henry’s morning nap. But I had forgotten to pick up buttermilk and the butter and eggs remained on the kitchen counter for the rest of the day, while other minor tasks like, you know, trying to convince your son to get the avocado IN THE MOUTH HONEY, were completed to varying degrees of success. Child fast asleep in bed, finally, my heart sank when I saw the ingredients neglected and imploring me to dust off the mixer, when really my energy levels were just about enough to mix up a Negroni and stare into the mid distance until the clock reached a time that was reasonable for a grown adult to go to bed. But, you know, What Would Ina Garten Do? and all that (actually Ina would be already on her second Negroni), and since the butter was about fit to become intelligent enough to bake the cake itself, I sucked up whatever minor reserves I had and got to creaming the butter and sugar together. And that’s where the magic actually happened. We all know that our butter should be soft, at room temperature, or whatever instruction we think that a half hour on the countertop constitutes, but it has to be one of the most under-appreciated steps in baking. I know that now, having seen the very-much-room-temperature butter and eggs and sugar transform into a pillowy light batter, rising into soft mounds reminiscent of beaten egg whites. And since I was not in any way working with mise en place, the batter got a touch of extra beating while I frantically grated lemon zest into a bowl.

The end result: a loaf cake that was feathery light, pungent in lemon flavor and aroma, with a gratifying fragility to the crumb. Was it perfect? Well: I would like to go back and prick the cake all over with a skewer before pouring over the lemon syrup, so that it penetrated every corner and crevice of the cake. I’d like not to have had to leave the cake to cool overnight covered with a towel, since there was no chance it would be wrappable before I turned into a pumpkin. I left off the suggested icing since I tend to prefer an un-iced loaf cake but am now curious as to what that extra layer of sweet and tang atop the cake would have produced. But, sitting munching a slice under tree shade in our local park, with Henry rolling around on a blanket and trying to eat grass, it was more than enough and perfect just as it was.

Lemon Loaf Cake
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties!

The original recipe yielded two loaves. I halved it and made just one, but know that you can easily double this and potentially freeze a second loaf.

115g (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups/225g sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/6 cup grated lemon zest (3 to 4 large lemons, or 5-6 smaller meyer lemons if available to you)
1 1/2 cups/165g flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 plus 1/8 cup (90ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
3oz/90ml buttermilk, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the icing (optional):
1 cup/200g confectioners’ (icing) sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Butter and flour a loaf pan (ideally about 8.5 x 4.5 inches). Line the bottom with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and 1 cup/200g granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well between each addition. Then add the lemon zest.

Whisk or sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In another (small) bowl, combine 1/8 cup/30ml lemon juice, the buttermilk, and vanilla. Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, a cake tester comes out clean.

Combine 1/4 cup/50g granulated sugar with 1/4 cup/60ml lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves. When the cake is done, allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and set the cake on a rack set over a tray or sheet pan. Prick the cake all over with a very fine skewer then spoon the lemon syrup over so it penetrates through the cake. Allow to cool completely.

For the icing, if using, combine the confectioners’ sugar and the lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth (you may need to add more juice or sugar to get the right consistency). Pour over the top of the cake and allow the glaze to drizzle down the sides.

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