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News / Life / Clark County Life

Pretty in Pink: Strawberry Rhubarb Cake makes the most of seasonal flavors

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 5, 2024, 6:03am
4 Photos
Strawberry cake mix, fresh rhubarb, ripe strawberries and cream magically create a custard-like layer of goodness.
Strawberry cake mix, fresh rhubarb, ripe strawberries and cream magically create a custard-like layer of goodness. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

I first tasted rhubarb on a dare. The family next door to my childhood home had a son my age and sometimes we’d talk to each other through the fence between our yards. One day I went outside and there was Adam, holding what looked like a super-sized stalk of pink celery. He said it was rhubarb and dared me to take a bite of the raw stalk. Never one to pass up a direct challenge, I agreed. I crunched into the stalk and encountered the sourest substance known to humankind. I spat it out as soon as the first rhubarb molecule touched my tongue. He insisted that people ate it all the time. I didn’t believe him. Eating rhubarb could bring nothing but suffering. It might permanently alter your taste buds so that you’d never be able to taste anything sweet again.

The first time I connected the vile vegetable in my backyard with the rhubarb in my grandmother’s delicious pie, I was gobsmacked. I was also shocked to discover that my favorite cookies from Great-Aunt Velma contained rhubarb. I had to take time to mentally align the sheer horror of raw rhubarb with the total delight of cooked and sweetened rhubarb but after I wrapped my head around it, I became a massive rhubarb fan.

When my husband and I relocated to Vancouver, the first thing I did was buy a rhubarb start at the Vancouver Farmers Market. It grew so big the following year that I put rhubarb in every batch of jam and every crisp and pie. My husband started asking me to please, please make even one apple crumble without rhubarb. I looked at him and said, “But what am I supposed to do with all this rhubarb?” He said he didn’t care what I did with it as long as it stopped polluting his apples. I learned that it was better to throw him an occasional apples-only dessert, if only so I could put more rhubarb in other things later.

During these joyful years of ERE (Extreme Rhubarb Excess), I heard about a dessert called rhubarb custard cake, which creates its own custardlike layer as it bakes. I was intrigued but never made it until recently. Now I’m sad because it’s delicious and I could have been eating it all along.

However, I gave the recipe a seasonal twist by combining rhubarb with strawberries. Rhubarb season is wrapping up and strawberry season is just beginning so it’s the best time of year to make the most of this fortuitous overlap. In fact, I was on my way home from buying rhubarb when I saw a berry stand on the side of the road. I ate a whole pint on the way home but fortunately I still had enough for the cake.

The custard cake comes together easily, especially if you use a boxed cake mix. Please don’t be alarmed by that. I think the important thing to remember is that I’m not a professional cook and the point of my time in the kitchen is not to make everything from scratch but to make anything at all. When I think of it in those terms, I realize that the people I cook for, including myself, should be very grateful indeed that I expend even the merest amount of effort. I would just as soon go to a restaurant or eat a tub of spumoni ice cream for dessert. (Which reminds me: Why is it so hard to find spumoni ice cream in supermarkets nowadays? Where did it all go? Fodder for a future article, perhaps.)

But back to the cake. Chop enough rhubarb to fill 3 cups with half-inch squares (more or less). Then chop enough strawberries in quarters to fill 1 cup. (I used more rhubarb than strawberries because strawberries release a lot of liquid while cooking, although if you’d like to try a half rhubarb-half strawberry recipe, I’d love to hear about it.) Pour 1 cup of sugar over the fruit along with 1 teaspoon vanilla and ½ teaspoon ginger and set aside. Make the strawberry cake according to directions (cake mixes usually require water, eggs and vegetable oil) and pour into a greased 9-by-13-inch cake pan. Scoop or pour the fruit evenly over the cake batter then pour 1 cup of heavy whipping cream over everything. You’ll think it’s just way too much liquid to ever bake up properly, but somehow during cooking, the rhubarb and strawberries form a soft, custardy layer on the bottom that’s not raw but not solid, sort of like pudding or jelly. It’s a sweet little bit of magic.

Whatever you do, don’t mix up your vanilla extract with lemon extract. Yes, I did this. I wondered for a second why my vanilla was so light and clear and then an eye-wateringly powerful lemon smell smacked me straight in the face. I thought I’d ruined everything. I didn’t have enough rhubarb to start over, so I rinsed everything under cool water until the rhubarb and strawberries smelled normal again. Fortunately, my mistake was undetectable in the baked cake. Whew.

Bake the cake for 60 minutes and then check to see how toasted the top layer is getting. I cooked the cake for 65 minutes and it was browner on top than I’d have liked. If that happens to you, not to worry. It can always be disguised with whipped cream or ice cream, which is the ideal way to enjoy this cake, anyway.

Pro tip: Don’t try to eat any raw rhubarb.

Strawberry Rhubarb Custard Cake

1 box strawberry cake mix, made according to directions with water, eggs and oil

3 cups chopped rhubarb

1 cup chopped strawberries

1 cup sugar

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon ginger (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare strawberry cake according to box directions and pour into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Mix chopped rhubarb and strawberries with sugar, vanilla and ginger and scoop or pour evenly onto the cake batter. Pour heavy cream over that. Bake for 60-70 minutes.