Ever since Julie Andrews’ moist doe eyes looked up to Peggy Wood’s for spiritual guidance, Americans have been admonishing themselves to Climb Every Mountain as if this was the best way to deal with life’s obstacles.
– Curl up in a ball and nap in the shade of a tree? Bad.
– Turn back and try another route? Bad.
– Stick to the gently rolling hills? Bad.
And so I’ve long felt ashamed by all the mountains I didn’t care or dare to climb as a home cook. Souffles: totally unneeded stress. Sushi: better leave it to the pros. Beautiful multi-layered cakes: life is hard enough.
Then a few days ago, I came across this recipe for a rhubarb buttercream cake. Rhubarb is like catnip to me. I act silly in its presence. Imagining its tart, beguiling character, I felt a strong urge to make the cake, yet I doubted my abilities. Baking is just not my forte. I usually don’t enjoy doing it. This is when the sinister ideology of Rodgers and Hammerstein reared its head. Climb this mountain, Mr. Alpenglow. Climb this mountain.
I did and it was awful. Had to make three cakes. One broke and I had to make another. Had to make a Swiss meringue buttercream which utterly failed (too runny, then a curdled mess). Had to go back to the store for more rhubarb and more butter. Had to whip up a beginner’s buttercream. Had to frost the cake with unsteady hands. But then I arrived at the summit and the view took my breath away.
RHUBARB BUTTERCREAM CAKE*
adapted from The Vanilla Bean Blog
for the buttermilk cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream
Preheat the oven to 350. Line the bottom of three 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans (bottom and sides). In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then set aside. In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk and sour cream, then set aside. In a large bowl, whip the butter with an electric or standing mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat again until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla, whisking as you go until the batter is light and voluminous. Fold in the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture in three additions, starting and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly among the three prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes until the center is set (eg. until a toothpick comes out with just the slightest bit of moist crumb). Let the cakes cool before flipping them out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting the cake.
for the rhubarb buttercream**:
4 cups of rhubarb, diced
1/3 cup of water
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
4 cups of unsalted butter, room temperature
2 pounds of confectioner’s sugar
2 pinches of salt
Bring the rhubarb, water, and granulated sugar to a simmer in a pot on medium flame. Stir occasionally until the sugar is dissolved and the rhubarb is completely softened. Carefully transfer this mixture to a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Run the rhubarb mixture through a strainer. Return the rhubarb syrup to a small pot and simmer for 5-10 minutes on medium-low heat until the syrup has thickened, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Chill the syrup completely (the freezer is okay). In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric or standing mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Next, add the sugar in batches and continue to beat. Finally whisk in the salt and 1/2 cup of the rhubarb syrup. If your buttercream is holding up well, as it should, continue to add rhubarb syrup a few tablespoons at a time(I ended up using close to 1 cup because I wanted to highlight the rhubarb’s tartness). You can use the buttercream immediately or cover it with plastic and store in the refrigerator until ready to use (bring to room temperature).
*The next time I make this cake, I’m definitely going to include a rhubarb compote between the cake layers to intensify the rhubarb experience.
**The original recipe calls for a Swiss meringue buttercream, which I tried but initially failed at. I substituted with this forgiving buttercream recipe, which yields more rhubarb syrup than you will need and a very generous mount of buttercream. Leftover rhubarb syrup is delicious in lemonade, iced tea, cocktails, and other desserts. If you’re okay with a thinly frosted cake, you can certainly cut the recipe in half.