Last week I went home to North Dakota for Mom's funeral. The service ended up being lovely, with a huge turnout, and so nice to see extended family and old friends. Reminders of her were everywhere, of course, but while her garden was starting to come up, including the special fern peonies she rescued from her grandmother's garden, nothing was really blooming yet. But the rhubarb on the south side of the house was already going gangbusters.
About a month ago, right after Mom died, my sister and I were going through some of the books she had out, including cookbooks. Sister found a copy of the Ritzy Rhubarb Secrets Cookbook: Rhubarb Recipes by the Good Cooks of Litchville, North Dakota and the Surrounding Area, which is much in-demand on the North Dakotan corners of the internet. Edited by Jane Winge and originally published in 1991 and reprinted in 1992, 1993, 2000, and 2002, it's probably the most popular rhubarb cookbook in the Upper Midwest. We both wanted it, but given my already extensive cookbook collection, I said she could have it. Except then we found another copy! Thanks to Mom's thrifting skills, we both got to have one. Which was just a perfect present from her.
All of the guests for the funeral were gone by Sunday, leaving just me and Dad. I decided I wanted to make a rhubarb cake for the two of us. We had the most delicious rhubarb bars at the after-service dinner, but they ran out before I could get one! Thankfully a friend had gotten dessert WITH her dinner, and shared. We found out later the young (and very talented) baker thought that people might not like rhubarb, so she didn't make as much of those as the other bars (rommegrot bars - a take on a favorite Norwegian cream porridge). I was like, "Not this crowd!" Rhubarb is very popular around here and those who moved away remember it from childhood. Everyone raved that they were the best rhubarb bars they'd ever had. And while I sadly do not have that recipe (yet, lol), I was feeling cake-ish (as I often do), so searched the Ritzy Rhubarb Secrets Cookbook for a likely candidate. This one immediately struck my fancy. Not only was it the first one listed in the cake section, it also looked easy as pie.
"The judges awarded Evy a blue ribbon. They said that selecting the winning cakes was a difficult task as they all looked nice. A traditional flavor was looked for. They liked the crunchy texture and nuts with a good fresh flavor. 'Simple recipes are good.'" How's that for the most North Dakotan review ever? But they're not wrong. This is a simple recipe with good, fresh flavor. No butter to soften and mixes up in a flash. The sour cream provides the fat and moisture in the recipe, and the baking soda reacts with the acidity in the sour cream to create lift, with help from the egg.
Rhubarb-Sour Cream Cake Recipe
Here's how Evy's original recipe reads:
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups rhubarb, cut up
Topping: 1/2 brown sugar and as many nuts as you like
Beat eggs, sugar, and sour cream together. Add flour, soda, and salt. Mix well. Add rhubarb. Pour into greased and floured 13x9 pan. Sprinkle topping over cake. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes.
Here's my adaptation, because since Dad doesn't bake, some of the ingredients were a bit lacking. The main one being I substituted nonfat plain Greek yogurt for the full fat dairy sour cream. Still turned out wonderfully, though!
1 cup sugar (Mom only had raw sugar)
1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (skip if using full fat yogurt or sour cream)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
at least 2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 tablespoon raw sugar
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Grease and flour a 9"x13" glass baking dish and preheat the oven to 350 F. Chop fresh rhubarb in advance. If using frozen, thaw and drain. Whisk the egg, sugar, yogurt, vegetable oil, and vanilla together. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt and stir quickly with wooden spoon. Add rhubarb and stir to combine, then pour into greased and floured baking dish and spread evenly. Work quickly as the baking soda will instantly start to react with the acid in the yogurt (probably a big slower with dairy sour cream). Sprinkle with sliced almonds, and then sprinkle sugar on top. Bake at 350 F for 30-40 minutes, or until top is golden brown.
This makes a springy, delicious cake that would be good with any type of berry as well. Serve plain or with whipped cream, warm or cold. The rhubarb is not sweetened, so the sugar on top is necessary, along with the full cup of sugar in the batter. If you like your desserts very sweet, toss the rhubarb in sugar to coat before baking. But for me this was just perfect.
This cake was so easy it is definitely going in regular rotation. It will probably be a little more tender and moist with real sour cream, or full-fat yogurt, than the nonfat kind, however. But I could see it easily adapting to each fruit harvest as it comes in - rhubarb, strawberries, sour cherries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, plums, blackberries, etc. And of course, you can always slice and freeze raw rhubarb for wintertime baking.
Litchville is a very small town in Barnes County in the Eastern half of the state, and clearly there are lots of rhubarb experts there! The cookbook has approximately 150 pages of recipes, everything from the more traditional like cakes, pies, and preserves, to beverages, breads, and salads. Rhubarb culture is strong in the Upper Midwest, especially North Dakota, because the cold climate makes it difficult to grow most fruits. Rhubarb thrives in cold and neglect. North Dakota's long, cold winters, and cool, wet springs are perfect for rhubarb, which needs a certain number of below-freezing days in the winter to produce. Certainly the rhubarb I planted in New York is doing much less well.
According to Ritzy Rhubarb, "Rhubarb is an enigma. Botanically it is a vegetable, but legally it is a fruit. A court ruling in Buffalo, New York, on July 17, 1947, declared it a fruit because its use in the home is similar to that of other fruits." Rhubarb is related to buckwheat, and only the stalk is edible. The leaves contain a toxic amount of oxalic acid (what makes rhubarb sour) and should not be eaten. The stalks, which range in color from pale green to ruby red, are a sour treat after a long winter. Mom and others of her generation remember going out to the garden with a cup of sugar and a paring knife and dipping the raw rhubarb stalks in the sugar to eat. That's a little too sour for me, but a fun childhood memory. I like rhubarb in everything from pie, bars, cakes, breads and jams to more savory applications like mixing rhubarb sauce with garlic and eating it with chicken or pork. Yum.
Do you have a favorite way to eat rhubarb?
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.