{eat cake} Rhubarb Upside Down Cake + Our Little Secret

{photo by Sara Remington}

This is the story of the best cake I've ever made, the cake that got me on The Martha Stewart Show. It is my mother's, and originally my grandma Pollock's famous Rhubarb Upside Down Cake. The making of this cake is as clear as any memory I have of childhood. Mom would send one of us into the backyard to snap off fat stalks of rhubarb that grew up over our heads. I remember the ruby color, the first crack of the fibers as she sliced them into plump chunks, rhythmically rocking her well-used Chicago Cutlery against the cutting board. The smell of the house as the cake cooks is like a wave of browning sugar that washed over every sense, and it can still take me back to the sounds of my dad, smacking his lips with a gleeful “oh honey, honey, hon-ey” aimed at my mother as he drizzled fresh cream over his steamy portion. To me, this cake is all innocence and childhood. It is bliss.

Years later, when I was learning French pastry at the New York City restaurant Café Boulud, I made mom's cake for the staff, and my pastry chef Remy Funfrock, whom I both feared and adored. I brought him his portion rather sheepishly -- he was a renowned three-star French pastry chef and this a humble farm dessert. He spouted rave reviews in his thick French accent, claiming he wanted to put it on his menu, and making me, the awkward and normally silent new pastry cook, feel like a sudden star. His praise was a strong, early lesson to always be proud of where we come from.

Since then I've made this cake proudly for friends and colleagues far and wide, including for my dear friend Nikki while we were working side by side in the Food Network Kitchens years ago. Knowing I wanted to save the recipe to include in my own cookbook one day, I shared the recipe with her but with the promise never to reveal its contents, especially, the secret ingredient -- marshmallows. 

Packaged miniature marshmallows go against all the principles of fresh, local, seasonal food. But you’ll have to forgive yourself just this once. They are the magic ingredient in this irresistible cake, that brûlée into an alluring crust along the top of the cake, balancing the tart, tender rhubarb that's making its fleeting appearance in the market as we speak. 

Needless to say, Nikki kept her promise and our secret until years later when, while running the kitchen at The Martha Stewart Show, she made this cake for Martha Stewart herself. And that's how my book won Martha's heart. 

Sunday night I'll be teaching a group of newlyweds how to make this cake, along with five of my other favorite late-spring, early-summer dishes from my book. I sincerely wish you could all be there with me (I love a packed house!). Ugh. Why do you all live so far away? So we can be together in spirit, here's my recipe so you can make Rhubarb Upside Down Cake and have a little "honey, honey hon-ey" in your kitchen too. 

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Serves 6

5 tbsp/70 g unsalted butter {plus more for the pan}, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups/140 g cake/soft-wheat flour
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 cups/350 g sugar
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 cup/120 ml whole milk
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
4 large stalks rhubarb, cut in 1/2-in/12 mm pieces {about 4 cups/2 kg}
Handful of miniature marshmallows
High-quality vanilla ice cream, for serving
Heavy/double cream {optional}, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350˚F/180°C/gas 4. Butter a 9-in/23-cm-square baking pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, 3/4 cup/150 g of the sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix in the 5 tbsp/70g soft butter with a fork or your fingers. Whisk together the milk, eggs, and vanilla in a small bowl. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture, using a fork to bring all together into a loose batter.

Toss together the rhubarb, the remaining 1 cup/200 g sugar, and marshmallows in a medium bowl; spoon in an even layer in the prepared baking pan. Spoon the batter over the top in an even layer. The batter will drip down between the rhubarb allowing some of the rhubarb to show {don’t worry if some of the marshmallows and rhubarb show, they will melt into a caramelized crust as the cake cooks}.

Bake in the center of the oven until the rhubarb is bubbly, the top is puffed and caramelized {slightly golden-crisp in spots}, and the cake springs back lightly when touched, about 40 minutes.

If you can resist the intoxicating smell, let the cake cool a few minutes on a rack. Then spoon out into small bowls, flipping the cake so the rhubarb side faces up, and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you’re feeling really decadent or have a bit of Southern in you, drizzle fresh cool cream over the top.  


Erica said...

I've made this recipe twice in the past month (for different BBQs) and it is AMAZING! I didn't even get a piece at one of them because it went so fast...


Sarah Copeland said...


I'm so thrilled to year it! And thanks for sharing it on your blog. I am long overdue to make another batch of this cake. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts!

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.