Rhubarb Vanilla Pound Cake

I grew up with a rhubarb plant in the backyard. The perennial plant was more of a fuss than it was adored, as it hung heavy over the marigolds and outgrew its home in the garden. The large leaves spread out over the lawn, becoming a nuisance when it became time to mow the lawn. The rhubarb plant has been there as long as I can remember, sprouting just as the grass began to turn green. Though my family never used its gift of fruit, we would encourage the neighbors to take what they wished and cut off stalks for family friends.

It wasn't until I began baking that I started to appreciate the rhubarb plant for its tart stalks.

With a winter that overstayed its welcome, this year the rhubarb did not have a chance to sprout until late May. Though the season for rhubarb lasts all summer long, the vegetable is sweetest when the stalks are young and thin. I waited impatiently for the rhubarb to grow, desperate for a sign of spring, hoping that sharp taste would erase the endless snow and bitter wind. I had already drawn up a recipe list, finding ways to make the most of the stalks, and was simply waiting for my prize. Last week, I finally received my first batch fresh from the garden, hauled three hours to my doorstep by my younger sister.

Unapologetic, the rhubarb was as tart as my winter dreams had dared.

Rhubarb is often buried beneath other flavors, playing second fiddle to fruits like strawberries. Spiced with a pinch of ground ginger or mixed with vanilla bean seeds, the vegetable can stand alone and shine. My love for sour and tart foods refuses to drown out the tartness of the rhubarb with cloying amounts of sugar, and it shows in this pound cake. This cake is a compromise between the tart rhubarb and sweet cake, a simultaneous play on both flavors.

With a dozen stalks remaining in my crisper, you can count on a few more rhubarb recipes appearing in the next couple weeks.

Rhubarb Vanilla Pound Cake is a heavy, dense cake in the most delightful of manners. The cake has a sweet, creamy quality which contrasts with the tart rhubarb pieces scattered throughout. Before baking, sugar is sprinkled over the batter which creates a crackly, sweet crust when it emerges from the oven. The cake is best served by itself, or with a glass of milk or mug of coffee.

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Rhubarb Pound Cake

Yields 1 loaf (or 3 mini loaves)

2 cups (240 grams) rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1/2 cup (115 grams) butter, room temperature
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
1/3 cup (75 grams) sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (190 grams) all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Lightly grease a loaf pan.

In a medium frying pan, mix the cut rhubarb with 1/4 cup sugar. Over medium-high heat, cook the rhubarb until it is fork tender but not mushy, about 5 minutes. The rhubarb needs to be able to hold its shape or it will get lost in the cake batter. Set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time, mixing well between additions. Mix in the vanilla bean paste, sour cream, and salt until uniform. Stir in the flour until just incorporated. Gently fold in the rhubarb pieces and any juice remaining in the pan.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with a tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Serve warm or room temperature, with a cup of tea or spoonful of strawberry jam.