Writing about rhubarb in the middle of February feels about as kind as bragging about the bikini you’ll be wearing on that mid-winter escape to Saint Barths. In other words: not very kind. Rhubarb season is still a couple of months off which, in February time – how is it that the shortest month of the year always feels the longest? – is the equivalent of about one million years. But if you’re one of the lucky souls out there who squirreled away some rhubarb last season, and you still have a pound or so in your freezer, you’re going to want to hear about this.
Yes, you’ve seen this cake before. It’s the olive oil citrus cake from Rustic Fruit Desserts that I posted about a year ago. If you were reading back then, you know that I liked this cake a lot. What you don’t know is that it has become something of a wintertime fixation. These days, when I head into the kitchen to bake, the majority of the time it is to bake this cake. Either I am a woman obsessed (perhaps), or this is a very good cake (definitely).
I told you last year that this cake is brilliant all on its own. I stand by that statement, but that hasn’t stopped me from dressing it up from time to time. Powdered sugar, lemon sorbet, the lovely glaze from the original recipe: excellent options, one and all. (Though, for my taste, preferably not all at once.) But now, please direct your attention to the photo, and therein to the rhubarb sauce rolling down onto the plate. Of all of the toppings and accoutrements that I’ve tried, this one takes (makes?) the cake.
I remember the week when I first made this sauce. It was the first week of April last year, and suddenly, mercifully, it felt like spring. Eli came home from climbing that Thursday night with a bouquet of orange ranunculuses, and the next morning I found rhubarb at the market. Before I had even unpacked the shopping bags, the rhubarb was chopped and melting into sugar over a low flame. I had grabbed only a few stalks of rhubarb, so it was a tiny batch of sauce, just enough for a serving or so. I spent the rest of the morning writing letters, and then I spooned the sauce over a drift of fresh ricotta, and ate it with my feet up on the radiator. The sun was so bright, I remember, that I had to pull down the shade. The next day, Eli and I were walking through the park when, out of nowhere, a pillow fight broke out. A pillow fight. Feathers were flying everywhere, and I remember thinking, I thought that only happens in cartoons. A few days later, we decided it was time for our first picnic of the season, but we got home later than expected, and we had to race against the sun. By the time we were outside on the blanket, it was almost a full half-hour after the sun had officially set, but still another full half-hour before it would be truly dark. One of us, probably me, said something about the light, about how blue it was. We ate steamed artichokes, and pasta with mushrooms, lemon, and thyme. We talked about what it means to be brave, and I realized that I don’t know very many brave people, and that I am not nearly as brave as I’d like to be. Then, we lay on our backs for a while until the sky went completely black. I made a second, larger batch of rhubarb sauce that night before bed. I loved that week. It felt important, somehow.
There’s not much to this sauce, really, which is probably why I think it’s so great. (I’m a rhubarb purist.) It’s rhubarb, a few tablespoons of sugar, some vanilla, and a squeeze of lemon. I’ve tried souping it up with orange zest and liqueur, but honestly, I think simple is best here. The sauce is rosy and bright. Very un-February. Just what February needs.
1¼ pounds chopped rhubarb (if frozen, do not thaw)
3 Tbsps sugar
1½ tsps vanilla
Juice of ½ a lemon (If you’re making the olive oil citrus cake, too, you can use half of the lemon that you zest for that recipe.)
Combine all of the ingredients in a medium, non-reactive saucepan. Cover and heat over a medium-low flame, until the rhubarb pieces soften and melt into each other. Stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Taste, and add another tablespoon or two of sugar if you prefer a sweeter sauce. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.