Today: Sometimes a cake doesn't go as planned, and sometimes it's better for it.
No one has ever accused me of having trouble committing. I stick with books and friend and foods, probably to a fault (see the condensed milk that's been in the fridge since July and the copy of Beloved that has a handwritten annotation for every printed word).
But the same isn't true when it comes to recipes. For every ten I declare I'll make, I see one through to completion. I always find an excuse to make something other than what I planned: I'm too hungry to wait for beans to cook; I'm too clean to deep-fry; I'm too concerned about the state of my finances to splurge on saffron. Because I'm still trying to figure out the limits of my kitchen, my budget, my energy, and my ability, recipes only become reality when the stars align—when I already have eighty-five percent of the ingredients and I'm in the mood for that particular dish and I promised to make it for someone who happens to be passing through town.
And this applies to cake, as well. The recipes I've been meaning to try live in eternally-open tabs on my browser, in photos of book spreads on my phone, in a cluttered Word document titled "RECIPE INSPIRATION!" that I'm too scared to open. So when it's time to actually bake, I ignore what I've been meaning to test and go with what's right in front of me.
For this cake, that meant rhubarb. I had taken it home from the office a couple of days earlier and was excited about finally being able to bake with a non-frozen, non-citrus, non-apple fruit. I marked four or five different rhubarb cake recipes and ruminated.
I decided to try a cake with rye flour because I was curious to use it in a dessert, because the words "rhubarb" and "rye" sound so beautiful together, and because I had bookmarked this recipe in Bon Appétit months earlier. I decided to make a compote of the rhubarb before adding it to the cake because I was inspired by this recipe for Rhubarb Pudding Cake, and to that, I decided to add orange zest and juice because rhubarb's sharpness reminds me of cranberries', and white wine because I thought it would be more interesting than water (and because there was a half-empty bottle in my fridge). I threw in a handful of raisins because I love to watch them swell with liquid like little water balloons.
I plopped the rhubarb compote onto the rye cake batter and swirled it in messily because I'm moving and there were boxes to pack and floors to sweep. For all of my improvisation, the cake came out of the oven light and moist, tasting simultaneously like the holidays and like springtime, with the rye flour adding an earthy warmth that made me glad I hadn't added any spices. It also made me glad that not everything has a plan.
A note on the rhubarb compote: When I first made this at home, I cut the rhubarb stalks into 1/4- to 1/2-inch chunks and cooked the compote for 15 to 20 minutes, uncovered, so that most of the liquid evaporated. The texture was more jammy than soupy—it was thick and I had to rap the spoon with some force to transfer it onto the cake batter. If your compote is much more liquidy, you might not want to use all of it on the cake—the excess moisture might make your cake gooey on the inside (which is delicious, but not to everyone's taste).
Rhubarb & Rye Anytime Cake
Serves 8 to 10
For the rhubarb compote:
pounds rhubarb (about 4 large stalks), chopped into small pieces
cup turbinado sugar
cup white wine
Zest of 1 orange
cup golden raisins
For the cake:
cup (4 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
cup (3 5/8 ounces) rye flour
teaspoon baking powder
teaspoon baking soda
cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
cup turbinado sugar
cup packed brown sugar
teaspoon almond extract
Juice from 1/2 an orange, plus enough milk to equal 1 cup total of liquid
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
How do you manage to make the recipes you were planning on? Do you allow for improvisation or you do plan a week in advance? Share with us in the comments.
Photos by James Ransom