Rhubarb Almond Coffee Cake

It’s that time again.

The time of year when the CSA starts sending more than just greens, greens, greens…and maybe some citrus. The time when I find myself running out into the garden every couple of hours to see if anything’s grown while I was away…and it actually HAS grown.

I feel myself breaking out of a sort of hibernation this time of year. The sun comes out every day now, not just to provide light, but also the much-needed heat that makes me want to go DO something (this Puerto Rican girl doesn’t jive so well with rain, fog and cold, but will gladly go hiking in humid hundred degree weather). I find myself not only becoming more physically active this season, but also more inspired.

This is a good time for my kitchen as well: the Alemany Farmer’s Market vendors are just starting to bring in their summer crops (I had my first 2010 California-grown tomato last week – YUM), and the garden is booming with new growth. Our strawberry plants are putting up flowers, tiny heads of broccoli are forming from our late-winter planting, mint and herb plants are popping up everywhere.

One of my favorite early summer treats is rhubarb, which shows up on grocery store shelves as early as April (grown in greenhouses for early harvest). Long revered in the East for its medicinal purposes, and demanding a higher price than saffron or opium in Medieval Europe, this beautiful plant produces thick, tangy stalks that are used in pies, jams, sauces, and many rustic fruit desserts.

Tragically, my backyard rhubarb was recently transplanted and is just now starting to send up its first leaves. I will likely not have any home-grown rhubarb until this fall, and will therefore have to buy it for just a little longer. In the meantime, let me make one thing clear:

*hops on to soap box, brandishes loudspeaker*

Rhubarb has been mistreated for years by chefs who, concerned about the delicate (read: boring, squeamish) pallets of the typical American diner, have unfailingly paired it with such sweet fruits and strawberries or peaches (or worse, smothered it in sugar), thus masking it’s natural tart, almost floral flavor. I will do no such thing.

This coffee cake is an amalgam of about 20 recipes I’ve researched over the past couple of years, as well as the result of a hefty amount of experimenting. I find the brown sugar and whole wheat flour add a perfect denseness to the cake, and the soft, tart pieces of rhubarb keep it deliciously moist. The addition of the almonds brings out a sweet, floral fragrance from the rhubarb and adds a wonderful crunch.

I think you will find that this cake is plenty sweet, but does not detract from the delicate and complex flavor of the rhubarb.

Note: The original recipe from which I adapted this called for two 9″ round cake pans; I like to use one 9″x13″ deeper casserole dish, but have also successfully baked this in something much wider/shallower. Decide on what you want your crust-to-cake ratio to be, and adjust your cooking time accordingly. Shallower pan = less time to cook through.

for the coffee cake:

1 1/2c brown sugar

2/3c oil (I use sunflower, but any light veg. oil is OK)
1 large egg (fresh out of the nest!)
1 tsp* vanilla extract
2 1/2c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1c milk (I used 2% organic milk, but anything you have is fine)
2c rhubarb, washed and chopped into small strips or cubes (I probably use more like 3 cups since I like it very tangy, but 2 will give you a good balance of cake/fruit)
1/2c sliced or chopped almonds (fresh is best – buy raw almonds and chop them yourself!)
for the topping:
1/2 tsp* powdered ginger
1/2 tsp* powdered cinnamon
1/4c chopped or sliced almonds
1/3c white sugar (or any non-brown sugar that melts/caramelizes well)
1 Tbsp butter (if you use unsalted, throw in a pinch of salt)

*I am a strong supporter of the “oops, I accidentally overflowed the measuring spoon and put in too much” school of flavoring. I often use more vanilla, spices, and herbs than are called for, and fully recommend that you suit the spices in this recipe to your tastes. For the sake of propriety, I have penned a “prudent” amount into the typed recipe. But they’re really just guidelines.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease your cake or casserole pan with butter or a fine coating of oil.

Mix the brown sugar, oil, egg, vanilla, flour, milk, salt, and baking soda together until smooth. With a rubber spatula, fold in the 1/2c almonds and the rhubarb. Pour all of this into your greased pan, and shake the pan a bit to level the lumps out.

Sprinkle the top of the batter with ginger and cinnamon. Some folks have told me they like it better with the spices mixed into the batter, but I like the intensity that this layered-effect gives to the finished cake.

In a separate bowl, melt 1Tbsp of butter and mix it into the remaining 1/4c almonds and 1/3c white sugar. Sprinkle this mixture over the top of the batter to form a crust (this will harden and caramelize in the oven).

Bake the coffee cake at 350 degrees for the allotted time (see below), or until the cake has risen and a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Allow to cool in the pan, and serve room-temperature with a dollop of fresh maple whipped cream, a scoop of ice cream, or a drizzle of creme fraiche.

Baking times:
Two 9″ round cake pans – 30 min
One 12″x16″ cake pan – 30-40 min
One 9″x12″ casserole dish – 50-75 min

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