It is strange to think that while our lives are on hold right now, nature just… carries on.
Awkwardly shuffling through the produce aisles of the grocery store, trying not to get too close to anyone, it struck me how different the world is now. The shops and streets are eerily quiet, and if you meet someone’s eyes above their mask they all share this expression of mild panic mixed with tired acquiescence. I probably share their expression. Just as I’m starting to think how this doesn’t even feel abnormal anymore, I see these little red stalks and I’m pulled back.
Hey. Look at that. I guess its May.
It is still rhubarb season, pandemic or not. With everything crashing down around them, these weird little plants continued to push up out of the earth to soak up the sun and drink in the rain. I don’t know why, but this gives me comfort.
Since they provided me with such a much needed lift, I knew I had to find something special to make with them. So I decided to try out this recipe from Style Sweet for Rhubarb and Ginger Cake, giving me the opportunity to try out a new cake and frosting recipe, AND a new frosting technique. Gotta live your best life, right?
When I was looking for inspiration for how to decorate this cake, I did as I often do and crawled down a Pinterest hole.
When I see something fabulous, I become obsessed with it, searching for every iteration of that aesthetic or technique I can find until I wear it out. Unfortunately, these little infatuations usually go unrequited because life keeps me busy and tired. So I guess the silver lining of this world crisis is that I actually got to try this one. I don’t know if this frosting technique has an actual name, but I fell in love with the idea of using buttercream like oil paint to create dense textures and layers. Like an impressionist painting that you can eat. I look forward to exploring it more, but I must say as a first attempt, I don’t hate it!
This look was achieved in much the same way as the paintings that inspired them. I mixed dollops of frosting with food colors and color items (such as cocoa powder to darken, or some of the reserved rhubarb syrup for pink) on a tray and literally painted them onto the base frosted cake with a paint brush. It seems so obvious, but it was a real fucking mind blower for me.
I especially love this frosting technique because it’s very low fuss. No need for multiple piping bags and tips, or a thousand bowls of colored frosting. Since you’re bushing on small amounts of frosting, a little goes a long way. I had four colors overall: dark burgundy, maroon, pink, and light pink base color, plus the edible gold paint. All together those colors came to about a half cup worth of frosting (not including the crumb coat and base layer) which was more than enough to make the ombre swoop across the cake. I mixed them just like paint on a palette using an offset spatula to mix the frosting around on a tray.
I had every intention of taking some process photos for this… but alas I got engrossed and completely forgot until the cake was done. Sorry folks. Guess I’ll just have to make another!
So let’s talk rhubarb and ginger cake! Y’all gonna need a lot of butter.
Because what’s a good dessert without copious amounts of butter? All together for the cake, filling, and frosting you will need 3 1/4 cups of butter. In case you were wondering, that is 1 and 2/3 POUNDS of butter. But hey, it’s not like you’re going to sit there and eat the whole thing by yourself in a single sitting… Are you? Somehow, despite all of that butter, this cake still manages not to feel heavy. The rhubarb really shines and makes this cake tart, sweet, and summery.
The cake itself had a lovely flavor. The ginger came through nicely when eaten by itself, but I did find it was overpowered by the rhubarb when paired with the filling and frosting. Texture-wise, it was rather dense and dry. However, I feel it would be negligent of me not to point out that the texture of a cake is not always the fault of the recipe, but of the production. I’m ashamed to say I did cut some corners that likely contributed to the density because… well I’m lazy, it’s a quarantine, and the only people that were going to be eating this thing were myself and The Hubs. What a wonderful opportunity for y’all to learn from my mistakes! The things I did wrong were:
1. I did not allow my ingredients to come to room temperature before starting.
Specifically the butter, eggs, and milk. Usually, if I know I am going to be making a cake later that day I will take out my ingredients that morning, but I simply forgot this day and didn’t want to put it off another day. Cold ingredients are difficult to incorporate, which results in over-mixing. Over-mixed batter = dense cake.
2. I changed the cake pan size from 8 inch to 6 inch. Why? Well, I don’t have any 8 inch pans.
But also my aesthetic “vision” for the cake just worked better on a taller cake. I thought about baking them in 4 pans instead of 3, but that would have been too tall. I’m a picky bitch. I knew going in that baking smaller but thicker cakes would affect the density, but I proceeded anyway because for this particular cake the look was more important to me than the taste. So the lesson here is: if you’re going to change the way the cake is baked, be prepared that it might change the texture.
3. I didn’t double-check the temperature of my new oven.
Most ovens run a little bit hot or cold, and it’s important to know how off your oven is and adjust appropriately before baking. I usually keep an oven thermometer in my oven, but alas I forgot to remove it from the old oven before it was hauled away and I haven’t yet purchased a new one, so I had to just go on faith that the temperature on the display was correct. It was not. This oven apparently runs cold, which means a longer bake time, which means more time for your cake to dry out.
I knew these things. I did them anyway. Sometimes you just want to bake a cake. The texture of the cake aside, it was still pretty darn tasty.
Last is the swiss meringue buttercream. I feel it’s well established at this point that this is not a pour-and-bake recipe. There are a lot of elements, and finicky steps that must be stringently followed. So why not throw in a meringue! I mean, we’re here, we’re doing this, we’re committed. Right? Honestly, now that I’ve made meringue buttercreams, I will never go back to american buttercream again (except for maybe this brown butter frosting which was amazing). I give it credit for being super easy to make, but its just way too sweet.
There is a whole plethora of buttercreams out there, but the most common ones are American, Swiss, and Italian.
American buttercream is the easiest as it is just butter, powdered sugar, and milk or cream whipped together. As such, it is a great starting place if you’re just learning to make your own frostings. But it is soooo sweet, and can be a little dense. Swiss and Italian buttercreams are rather similar to each other. They are both made by first making a meringue, then whipping in butter. Swiss meringue uses the double broiler method, and Italian uses the sugar syrup method. This results in a soft, light, silky texture that is not overly sweet and pretty darn easy to work with.
This frosting was lovely. The addition of the rhubarb puree and syrup gave it a slightly tart flavor that complemented the rest of the cake very well. It was light and silky and not overly sweet. My only criticism is that I did find it was perhaps, dare I say, too buttery? It does call for a pound of butter, after all. Buttercreams rely pretty heavily on butter for stability. I mean, it’s in the name. However, I think there was room to pull back a smidge on this one.
When making a meringue buttercream there is a point when the meringue sort of breaks and starts to get soupy. This is when people usually start to panic, especially if this is your first time making it. But then, like magic, the butter and eggs will emulsify and the soup will wondrously, and quite suddenly, become frosting. This usually happens right around the same time that you run out of butter to add, but when making this frosting I found that it came together when I still had quite a bit left, but for the sake of following the recipe, I added the rest anyway. If I were to do it again, I would likely stop once it came together.
In the end, I feel this rhubarb and ginger cake was an appropriate homage to the underestimated, humble rhubarb. After all, rhubarb can be so much more than just a sidekick to strawberries. It’s not Owen Wilson, it can do other things! It deserves to shine on it’s own! Let me know what your favorite rhubarb recipes are. Also, tell me what’s keeping you together right now? What’s giving you life? Has your life been completely overhauled, or is pretty much the same? I’m curious to see how others are handling their own personal versions of this crisis that we all share.
Till next time, Crumblers!