Last Saturday, when everyone up and down the East Coast was preparing for Hurricane Sandy, Suzanne Pelton was rescuing the last of the rhubarb in her garden
"I make a killer rhubarb upside-down cake," she said.
So Saturday morning was the time to gather the last of the crop.
I helped her pick and trim it, then watched her turn the last pathetic remnants into an irresistible confection.
"I've gotten to be a much better cook since I stopped working," Pelton said
But she was always a good cook.
She and her husband, David Stroud, both in second marriages, have seven sons between them who all love Pelton's cooking.
Friends ask her to make rhubarb upside-down cake for them. And she does. It is so much a part of her repertoire that she barely referred to the dog-eared, ink-smudged recipe in a Lucite stand before her.
Pelton mixed the cake batter with a marvelous old Kitchen Aid stand mixer she found at a tag sale. Like many women who cook with care, she coveted a Kitchen Aid for years before she found hers.
After turning the baked cake over and out of its pan onto a platter, she performed her final task: She photographed it. Pelton said she always photographs the food she makes after she plates it.
"I think everyone who has rhubarb should go into their garden and harvest the rest and make this cake for Thanksgiving," she said exultantly. "It's not just a spring crop."
Pelton suggests making this cake in a deep 10-inch pie dish. She takes the time to create a decorative, basket-weave layer of uniformly cut squares of rhubarb directly on top of the melted butter and sugar at the bottom of the pan.
This results in a pretty top when the cake is turned over onto a platter.
She says the cake dish may take between 2 and 5 cups of rhubarb depending on its size. She fills hers with roughly cut rhubarb on top of the decorative layer. Then she pours the cake batter over everything and lets it drip down between the rhubarb pieces. She smoothes the top before popping it into the oven.
1/2 stick, 2-ounces, unsalted butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, about 4 1/2 cups, 2 cups cut in uniform 1-inch squares, the rest roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick, 4-ounces, unsalted butter, cut in pieces, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1/2 cup milk mixed with 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup milk
Set oven to 350 degrees.
Put butter in a deep, round 10-inch pie dish or ovenproof skillet. Place in heated oven to melt. Add brown sugar. Spread evenly over bottom of pie dish. Return to oven to melt brown sugar, about 8 minutes. Watch carefully. Remove when bubbling.
Working quickly while the butter and sugar are hot, arrange the 2 cups of evenly cut rhubarb decoratively in a basket-weave pattern over the bubbling sugar mixture in a single layer. Spread remaining rhubarb pieces evenly on top. Set filled dish aside.
Depending on size of your baking dish, you may need as little as 2 cups or as much as 5 cups of rhubarb.
To make the batter, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Beat softened butter and sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until thoroughly combined.
In a stand-up mixer, at low speed, add flour mixture alternately with sour milk and milk, until just combined. Do not overbeat.
Spoon batter evenly over fruit. Smooth top. Place dish on rimmed cookie sheet to catch any butter-brown sugar that may bubble over while baking.
Bake on middle rack of oven for about 55 to 60 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out dry.
Cool 15 minutes on rack. Run a thin knife around edge of cake. Invert onto plate.
While still warm, with a spatula, carefully place back any brown sugar and/or rhubarb remaining in the pie dish.
After Pelton made her cake, there was just enough rhubarb left, exactly one pound, to make the Rhubarb Marma lade recipe from Elizabeth Field's new "Marmalade" cookbook (Eagle, Oct. 24, 2012).
Field, who lives in Canaan, N.Y., writes that this marmalade is a great way to use up any excess rhubarb in your garden -- which is what Pelton did when she made hers.
She chopped, grated and measured the rhubarb brought it to a boil, and lowered the flame. Then she stirred the burbling pink fruit occasionally.
Field's cookbook said it would take 20 minute to become "tender and jamlike." It did, indeed, reach that stage with very little trouble, but the time was more like 40 minutes.
The rhubarb marmalade finished cooking about the same time the rhubarb upside-down cake came out of the oven. When the marmalade actually cooled it was nicely jelled -- not too juicy, not stiff.
The lemon flavor was very bright. Do not use too big a lemon.
But leaving a bit of the pith on the zest is fine as citrus peel and pith and pits are high in pectin and are what make the marmalade gel.
Adding the pulp and pits to the mixture is fine. The pulp melts in. The pits rise to the top of the cooking mixture and can be removed before the marmalade gets jarred.
The vanilla extract got cooked so the vanilla flavor was non-existent.
I'd use half a vanilla bean, slit lengthwise, beans scraped out into rhubarb-lemon-sugar mixture after 10 to 15 minutes of simmering and stirring, then add the bean itself cut in half crosswise and torn in two lengthwise to make 4 pieces.
Pelton used only 1 cup sugar, but I found it made the marmalade too sweet. I would use maybe 3/4 cup.
The mixture fills 2 to 3 small jars, which is the only problem. Pelton said she could sit down and eat a whole jar herself. If you like rhubarb, double the recipe if you have enough stalks.
1 pound, about 4 large stalks, unpeeled rhubarb, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Large-grated zest and juice of 1 smallish lemon, zest grated on the large holes of a box grater
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger, well scrubbed but unpeeled
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 vanilla bean, slit lengthwise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a medium, non-reactive saucepan with a wide circumference, over moderate heat, combine rhubarb, lemon zest, juice, pulp and pits, ginger and water. Bring to boil. Do not cover. Lower heat to maintain brisk simmer. Stir occasionally.
After 10 or 15 minutes, if using vanilla bean, scrape seeds into marmalade mixture. Cut bean in two crosswise. Tear lengthwise. Add vanilla pod to pot.
Still stirring occasionally, cook marmalade until rhubarb is tender and mixture thickens to jamlike consistency. Re move from heat.
Add vanilla now if using extract. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Cool to room temperature.
Use immediately or store in refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes about 2 cups.
Adapted from "Marmalade: Sweet & Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste" by Eliza beth Field.