The Season of Rhubarb and Ravinia | Rhubarb Cake
When spring peeps its head in after the rains (and I must say, we’ve been having more than our normal share of rain here in the Bay Area…not that I’m complaining or anything…), there is nothing more exciting for me than walking into the market and seeing gorgeous crimson stalks of rhubarb among the usual produce.
In many places around the country, encountering rhubarb can be rare, but luckily for me, I often see them in our markets outside of the normal spring/summer rhubarb season. When I do see rhubarb, I always pick up several stalks. To me, it signals the seasons of warmth and summer evenings. It reminds me of outdoor concerts and picnics.
The first time I fell in love with rhubarb, I was enjoying one of the most memorable summers of my life in Chicago. I’ve mentioned before how I spent some time there as a grad student, and during the summer, my favorite place was Ravinia, one of the best outdoor venues for music and the performing arts in the country, just outside downtown Chicago.
Tucked away in the cozy wooded North Shore suburbs is the open air stage that is home to the historic Ravinia Festival. Locals and visitors alike enjoy a summer season of fantastic music at the open air theater. I have many memories of Ravinia – it was, after all, where my hubby and I had our first date, watching the Cowboy Junkies. Nearly every summer weekend, I attended performances there with friends, enjoying the entertainment under the stars, on a blanket topped with food and wine.
Indeed, the art of the picnic is taken very seriously by Ravinia-goers. You will often see quite the range of picnic-fare, from elegant low tables decked with cloth napkins and wine glasses to family sized Coleman coolers with wheels. Walking amongst the blankets is like wandering around a culinary bazaar – you can find recherche cheeses and fruit, refined salads, simple sandwiches with chips and soda, and of course, desserts.
One summer evening, I was there with my friend Liz, and she pulled out this magnificent cake out of a cooler. It was Rhubarb Cake, her grandmother’s recipe and a family favorite. I watched with interest as she cut off a big square and deftly added a dollop of whipped cream – I had never had rhubarb cake before! I knew in an instant why it was her family’s favorite cake. The moist cake studded with tangy rhubarb and the swirl of cream is pure heaven. It is summer personified.
These days, I instantly associate rhubarb with Ravinia. To me, they go hand in hand with summer. It’s been many years since that summer of good food, wine and music, but having a slice of this cake instantly takes me back. If you live in the Chicagoland area, go, for me, to Ravinia. Tickets go on sale April 22 for the summer season. And I hope you try this cake. It’s symphony of flavors is the next best thing.
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Recipe courtesy of my friend Liz and her wonderful family.
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 1½ cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 egg
- 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk (1 cup milk with 1 tablespoon cider vinegar)
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups chopped rhubarb (about 4-5 stalks, depending on size; don’t skimp)
- cinnamon sugar (about 1 tablespoon sugar and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift or whisk together flour, baking soda and salt, and set aside. Cream butter and sugar together. Add vanilla and egg, mix well. Alternately stir in milk and flour mixture. Add rhubarb. Pour into a greased 9×13 inch cake pan. Top with cinnamon sugar. Bake for 35 minutes. Best served with whipped cream or ice cream. (I prefer it with whipped cream.)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup sugar
- Splash of vanilla