Rhubarb Polenta Cake with Orange and Cardamom

 

rhubarb-orange-polenta-cake-paola-thomas-food-photography

Occasionally developing recipes is easy. I dream up a flavour combination, figure out the technicalities, make a test version and bam! it works first time.

This, however, was not one of those occasions. This cake, that I made last winter for Edible Seattle, kicked my ass forwards, backwards and into the middle of next week. This recipe is based on a traditional Italian ‘torta di polenta’, to which I thought some seasonal rhubarb would be a lovely addition. And when you have rhubarb, then it’s not much of stretch to pair that with orange and cardamom.

What I couldn’t figure out though, was how to incorporate the pieces of rhubarb to make the cake look pretty enough to go in a magazine. Although my family will eat anything that tastes good and is vaguely cake-shaped, for a magazine you need to have somewhat higher standards.

First I tried to make it like an upside-down cake. The concentric circles of rhubarb looked pretty, but the anaemic yellow of the cake’s underside made the whole thing look like an unappetisingly pallid frittata, which I soon gave up trying to photograph. But boy was it good – with its damp, buttery richness offset by the tang of the rhubarb and citrus and the pleasing bite of the polenta.

For my next trick I painstakingly arranged the rhubarb in concentric circles on the top of the cake. It looked magnificent and my hopes were high. Until I dropped it as I was carrying it to the oven. I scraped it back into the tin (thank goodness for the five second rule) and baked it, and the family loved it because it was cake, but it wasn’t anything I could photograph.

I whipped up another cake, again made an intricate rhubarb design on the top, managed to get it into the oven in one piece and then the rhubarb design promptly sank into the cake while it was baking. All I can say is that it’s a good job this cake is so delicious.

rhubarb-orange-polenta-cake-paola-thomas-food-photography-2

By now I was coming up against the copy deadline. This time round I abandoned the concentric circles and made up for rhubarb sinkage by sprinkling the top with some sliced almonds. And finally I got a cake I could use. With the deadline looming and in the flat winter light of a rainy December afternoon, I managed to grab a few shots, which I felt were OK.

So you could have knocked me down with a feather when my cake somehow wound up on the cover.

edible seattle rhubarb cake

You really do need to make this cake. It may not be the world’s prettiest, but when you’re curled up with a good book and a coffee on a damp spring afternoon, there really is nothing better.

Rhubarb Polenta Cake with Orange and Cardamom
Serves 10
The moist buttery richness of this cake is cut by the tang of rhubarb and citrus, while the polenta has a pleasing bite to it. Perfect for curling up in a chair with a good book, while the rain cascades down the windowpane.
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Cook Time
50 min
Total Time
2 hr 30 min
Cook Time
50 min
Total Time
2 hr 30 min
Ingredients
  1. 2 cups rhubarb, fresh or frozen, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
  2. 2 tablespoons turbinado or demerara sugar (granulated sugar would also work here)
  3. 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  4. Approximately 1 teaspoon flour for coating the pan
  5. 1 cup caster/superfine sugar
  6. 2 cups almond flour
  7. 3 extra-large eggs
  8. 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  9. Juice of half an orange
  10. Zest of two oranges
  11. 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon polenta or grits
  12. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  13. 1/4 teaspoon salt
  14. 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  15. Approximately 2 tablespoons sliced almonds to decorate
Instructions
  1. Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan and cut a circle of parchment paper to line the bottom. A Springform pan will make it easier to remove the cake.
  2. Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the softened butter and sugar together until pale, light, and fluffy (about 4 minutes at a medium speed).
  3. Stir in the almond flour, then beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the batter is airy and soft.
  4. With a large spoon, fold in the vanilla extract, orange juice, and zest.
  5. Add polenta, baking powder, and salt, still folding gently.
  6. Fold the cardamom into the batter until evenly distributed.
  7. Spoon the batter, which should be a mousse-like consistency, into the prepared pan and smooth it out to the edges with a spatula.
  8. Take the marinated rhubarb pieces out of their syrup and drain on a paper towel.
  9. Press the rhubarb into the cake batter and scatter the sliced almonds over the top. Some of the rhubarb pieces will sink during baking, so you will end up with a rhubarb-studded cake.
  10. Set the prepared cake pan on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven 50–60 minutes. The cake should be firmly set in the middle and a deep golden brown on top.
  11. Remove from the oven and let sit 5–10 minutes, until the cake shrinks away from the sides. Then remove from the pan and leave to cool on a wire rack.
Notes
  1. Note: The leftover syrup at the bottom of the rhubarb bowl is delicious on yogurt or ice cream, or you can pour it over a slice of the cake just before serving.
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Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

As promised many moons ago I can now finally reveal my recipe for the Parsnip Cake that debuted back in Edible Seattle in January of last year. Editor Tara and I wanted the cakes in this series to make the most of seasonal, local fruits and vegetables, which hugely limited our scope in January when all that seems to be available round these parts is mountains of kale.  

We started playing with the idea of root vegetables and I remembered a carrot cake I had made for the Minx’s first birthday party back in the Dark Ages. The cake I had in mind was a  moist, squidgy cake, dense with raisins, and warmed with spices and maple syrup  – a comforting wintry sort of cake, made all the more so by snowy swirls of cream cheese frosting on the top. And then we started toying with the idea of substituting parsnips for the carrots.

It seems obvious that carrots can be added to cake – their flavour is delicate, sweet and clean and they are delightful eaten raw. Raw parsnips on the other hand are not so obviously appealing – the flavour is woody, less sweet and just deeply, deeply vegetably. So it was with some trepidation that I lifted that first test cake out of the oven. I needn’t have worried, the alchemy of baking had worked again. The parsnips had roasted within the cake to become soft, sweet and totally unrecognisable as parsnips, just adding an intriguing smoky undertone. Make this cake and I defy anyone to identify the secret ingredient. (The Minx adores this cake BTW).

I made a couple of other changes and substitutions, most notably replacing the raisins with tart dried cranberries, as they seemed more seasonal, and I liked the idea of cutting the rich sweetness a little.  A cream cheese frosting, as is usual with carrot cake, seemed to be the way to go, adding another little tang to cut the sweetness, but this time I experimented with browning the butter and adding some bourbon to bring out the smoky woodsiness the parsnips had added to the cake. I warn you now, this frosting is like crack on a spoon.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The photography process was interesting too.

Following Tara’s art direction I started experimenting with something fashionably moody and almost Rembrandt-y in its lighting, but that seemed too spare and gloomy for this simple cake with its dark interior and plain white frosting. I decided instead to go for a lighter, cool blue grey palette instead, which would contrast with the rich browns of the cake, but seemed wintry in a more hopeful way and layered on the textures – weatherbeaten wood, rough burlap, vintage lace and hard glass to contrast with the soft sumptuous swirls of the icing.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 We decided to slice the cake to make it more interesting and so it didn’t end up being just a giant white blob, but getting the slice positioned correctly was a challenge. Too far forward and the slice was in focus but the cake looked like a heap of mashed potato, too far back and the cake looked lovely, but the slice looked unappetising. It took me many shots before I realised that both cake and slice had to be on the same plane of focus and that I had to position something WAAAAYYYYYY at the back to take the eye through the photo and get enough blur that it wasn’t distracting to the main event.

They both took some experimenting, but I ended up being delighted with how both cake and image ended up. And I suggest you root around (ha!) in your vegetable bin, find some parsnips and get baking. And without further ado, here is the recipe you need.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8
A rich moist parsnip cake with a decadent take on a cream cheese frosting
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Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
For the cake
  1. 1 1/3 cups grated parsnip (woody cores removed)
  2. 1 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
  3. 6 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 cup light brown sugar
  5. 1 2/3 cups wholewheat flour
  6. 1 teaspoon baking soda
  7. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  8. 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  9. 1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
  10. 8 tablespoons maple syrup
  11. 4 tablespoons orange juice
For the frosting
  1. 1 stick of butter
  2. 8 oz pack of cream cheese
  3. 1 cup powdered (icing) sugar (sieved)
  4. 2 tablespoons bourbon, or to taste (optional)
For the cake
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius)
  2. Grease and line the bottom of an 8 inch springform cake pan
  3. Combine the parsnip, cranberries, oil and sugar in a large bowl.
  4. Add the flour, baking soda and powder, nutmeg and cinnamon, maple syrup and orange juice. Stir until everything is combined in a sticky, wet batter.
  5. Spoon into the prepared cake pan, level the top and bake for an hour, or until a skewer, knitting needle or stick of spaghetti stuck into the cake come out clean. The top of the cake should be firm.
  6. Let the cake cool in the pan before removing.
For the frosting
  1. Melt half the butter in a small pan over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the milky solids turn medium brown and give off a nutty aroma (3-5 minutes).
  2. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside.
  3. Cool for about three minutes.
  4. Beat together the cream cheese and remaining butter.
  5. Pour on the browned butter and mix on a low speed until the mixture is cooled.
  6. Add the sugar a little at a time until fully combined and then increase the speed and beat the frosting until it is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes)
  7. Add bourbon to taste and mix until fully combined
  8. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread a thin 'crumb coat' of frosting over the fully cooled cake
  9. Add another generous layer of frosting and craft swirls with the back of a spoon.
Notes
  1. The recipe makes an 8 inch cake with frosting. For the large cake in the photograph I used one and half times the cake recipe and a double batch of frosting.The larger cake can be baked in the same 8 inch springform tin, but add around 15 minutes to the baking time and make sure you check for doneness with a skewer. Split the larger cake into two separate layers before icing.
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
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