Growing up I always heard fun stories of my mom cooking. In the ‘80’s she was a paralegal in Chicago with a flair for baking bread. While perfecting her method and recipe at 2am, my dad said the first loaves went down the toilet. I can’t weigh in on the validity of that statement, but knowing my mom’s passionate nature, I wouldn’t doubt it. She honed her talent and started selling bread to her coworkers in the city, a short and many times cold train ride into town.
My parents migrated to Seattle before I was born. My mom landed a waitressing job but had to convince the owner to give her a chance. “You’re over qualified, you’ll be bored,” he told her. She used her negotiating skills to land the job and soon she was learning the art of French baking from a wonderful man named Marcelle. She learned to make croissants on a heavy steel sheeter and cube old loaves for bread pudding with cream. When he retired he offered to sell the bakery to her, but she declined. “Icing cakes, handling the croissants, that is a true gift. I just didn’t have the touch,” she told me years later.
She moved on with her culinary career, became the lead baker at Cutter’s Crabhouse and developed their now famous focaccia recipe, slathered in butter and herbs.
By the time I came along she had “maxed out on baking.” To this day I haven’t had a loaf of bread made from my mother’s hands. She was a working mom and either didn’t have time or didn’t have interest. Maybe it was a little of both. She retired (partially) last year and over the past months has made her way back to the kitchen. She has never been the Suzie-Homemaker kind of mom, but she’s a great cook and teacher. “Can I teach you a trick?” was her way of gently helping me find my own path in the kitchen when I was struggling. This summer she’s started baking again and Rhubarb Polenta Cake from March/April 2015 Edible Seattle Magazine was one of her latest hits. Moist, citric, tangy and textural, this cake is a lovely ending to a summer meal or afternoon coffee break.
Foodie note: visit the bulk section at better grocery stores for almond flour and polenta (corn meal) with a lower price tag.
Recipe by Paola Thomas, Edible Seattle
2 cups rhubarb, fresh or frozen, chopped into ½ inch pieces
2 tablespoons turbinado or granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
Approximately 1 teaspoon flour or gluten-free flour blend for coating pan
1 cup baker’s sugar (granulated also works)
2 cups almond flour
3 extra-large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice + zest of two oranges
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon polenta/grits or corn meal
1 teaspoon baking power
¼ teaspoon salt
5 cardamom pods or 1 teaspoon ground
Approximately 2 tablespoons sliced almonds to decorate
1) About an hour before you want to make the cake, put the rhubarb in a small bowl and sprinkle with turbinato (granulated) sugar. Set aside until the sugar is dissolved.
2) Preheat oven to 325*F
3) Using the wrapper from the butter, grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan and cut a circle of parchment paper to line the bottom. A springform pan will make it easier to remove the cake. If you don’t have one, cut two long strips of parchment paper and place them crosswise at he bottom of the pan, underneath the parchment circle with the excess strips folded over the sides of the pan. You can use these “handles” to remove the cake.
4) Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the softened butter and sugar together until pale, light, and fluffy (about 4 minutes at medium speed). Stir in the almond flour; beat in eggs, one at a time, until the batter is airy and soft.
5) With a large spoon, fold in the vanilla extract, orange juice, and zest. Add polenta, baking powder, and salt, still folding gently.
If using whole cardamom: crack the pods, remove the seeds, and crush the seeds using a pestle and mortar. If using ground cardamom: skip this step. Fold the cardamom into the batter until evenly distributed.
6) Spoon the batter, which should be a mousse-like consistency, into the prepared pan and smooth it out to the edges with a spatula.
Take the marinated rhubarb pieces out of their syrup and drain on a paper towel. Press the rhubarb into the cake batter and scatter the sliced almonds over the top. Some of the rhubarb pieces will sink during baking, so you will end up with a rhubarb-studded cake.
Note: The leftover syrup at the bottom of the rhubarb bowl is delicious on yogurt or ice cream, or you can pour it over a slice of the cake just before serving.
7) Set the prepared cake pan on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven 50–60 minutes. The cake should be firmly set in the middle and a deep golden brown on top. Remove from the oven and let sit 5–10 minutes, until the cake shrinks away from the sides. Then remove from the pan and leave to cool on a wire rack.