There’s nothing tricky about making a great-tasting rhubarb cake, and there are plenty of recipes out there to prove it. But making one that’s also pretty? That’s more of a challenge.
With its high moisture content, rhubarb quickly disintegrates when it’s heated, turning into a beige mush that doesn’t reflect its rosy elegance when it’s intact.
Poaching the rhubarb in sugar syrup can help. The sugar lightly candies the stalks, helping them keep their shape while sweetening their intense tartness. Poaching also allows you to add flavorings. Vanilla is a classic choice, but you could just as easily throw in a few cardamom or star anise pods, a curl of lemon zest, or a couple of slices of fresh ginger root.
Be sure to keep the aromatics on the lighter side here. After poaching the rhubarb, the sugar syrup is boiled down into a glaze to be brushed over the cake, adding shine and moisture. Too much star anise, or any other ingredient for that matter, can become bitter when reduced.
The cake itself — a buttery, moist poundcake flecked with vanilla beans — is plenty good on its own. I often make it without fruit, but I like it even more in rhubarb season, when the poached stalks add a tangy, syrupy juiciness that somehow makes the cake seem lighter.
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It’s a real beauty, too, with the top of the loaf covered in glistening stripes of rhubarb. Buy the reddest stalks you can find. They will fade to lipstick pink after poaching, and are more eye-catching than the pale green ones (which still taste just as good, if that’s what you have).
While you may be tempted to lay the rhubarb lengthwise across the cake, crosswise is much more practical when it comes to serving. The stalks are easier to slice this way, giving each piece an equal amount of the jammy topping.
To keep the poached rhubarb from sinking into the cake batter — which is decidedly not pretty — I add it to the top of the cake after the batter bakes and sets for 20 minutes. Do this carefully: The pan will be hot, and you don’t want to singe your fingers.
Your reward will be a thing of beauty, a pink-striped stunner that’s perfect for spring.
Recipe: Rhubarb Poundcake
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