Baker Marykate McGoldrick Thinks of Rhubarb in the Spring
The pastry chef uses rhubarb and buckwheat for an upside down cake that perfectly balances tartness and sweetness.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
When spring rolls around in the Bay Area, pastry chef Marykate McGoldrick’s thoughts inevitably turn to rhubarb.
“It’s definitely one of my favorite foods to cook with: I love that sour, tart flavor and the brilliant color,” she said. “After the drabness of winter, it’s just so welcome.”
In fact, when the former public-school-teacher-turned-baker was heading the dessert program for Camino (RIP), she would sometimes jump the gun on the vegetable’s short window of locally grown availability, which lasts roughly from April through June.
“I often get a little too excited and start shopping for it when it’s not in season and end up finding some hot-house variety from Washington.”
When it is finally in season, which can be delayed until late April some years, she’ll seek out the varieties with bright red stalks. Those feature the classic vibrantly tart flavor profile for which rhubarb is known and which works so well as a counterpoint to the sweetness inherent in desserts. (Rhubarb with greener stalks generally exhibit more vegetal and herbaceous notes, which work better made into syrup for cocktails).
While it’s most famously paired with strawberry, McGoldrick said the right treatment can coax out more than enough sweetness out of rhubarb to allow it to shine on its own. In her upside-down rhubarb-buckwheat cake, she slices the stalks lengthwise about a quarter-inch thick, tosses them with sugar, and bakes them. That way the rhubarb retains its natural shape and juices so that the final product still “has that nice bite to it” that can be balanced by whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream. (She uses buckwheat flower because buckwheat is related to rhubarb and “it’s kind of fun to have them both together.”)
Besides cakes, McGoldrick spreads her rhubarb around when in season, using it in sorbets and tarts, as well as in syrups as a topper for ice cream, an add-in to sparkling water, and more. It can also be pickled, and Bay Area chefs are increasingly using it in savory dishes, in particular utilizing rhubarb’s tartness as a novel way to cut through the fat of meats like duck or pork. It can be chopped and frozen, and stored for up to a year, and will keep up to a week in the refrigerator when wrapped in a clean towel and placed in the vegetable drawer.
When picking it out at the market — farmers markets, Berkeley Bowl, and Monterey Market are good bets for locally grown — look for stalks that are nice and firm, not too watery or stringy. If still attached, the leaves of the stalk are good indicators of freshness. Just make sure to chop them off and discard them as they contain high levels of toxicity and are inedible.
McGoldrick is currently developing pastries for Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, hosts occasional pop-ups, and offers a subscription cake service. To learn more, go to MkMcGold.com.
Rhubarb Buckwheat Upside Down Cake
From MaryKate McGoldrick
Use a 19-inch round cake or springform pan
1 pound or 3 big thick stalks of rhubarb, trimmed
4 tablespoons butter
3⁄4 cup sugar
1 1⁄2 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons buckwheat flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces butter
1 cup sugar (divided)
1⁄2 split vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 small lemon or orange
4 eggs, separated
2⁄3 cup milk
Butter pan and cover bottom with a cut piece of buttered parchment to fit.
For the topping, slice the rhubarb in 1⁄4-inch or so long strips to fit across the pan in layers. Save the scraps and chop them into small diced pieces and reserve. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the sugar, stirring to incorporate. Add rhubarb strips and cook, stirring just until rhubarb starts to give off some juice but still retains shape — about 1 to 2 minutes. Pour butter-sugar mixture in the bottom of the pan and arrange rhubarb strips on top, layering if necessary to fit.
For the cake, whisk dry ingredients together in a medium-size bowl. In a stand mixer, cream butter and 3⁄4 cup of sugar with scraped vanilla bean and zest, add 4 yolks 1 at a time until incorporated, and scrape down bowl. Slowly add dry mixture alternating with milk in 2 additions. Turn back into medium bowl.
Whisk remaining egg whites until frothy, then add remaining 1⁄4 cup of sugar. Whip on medium-high until soft peaks. Gently fold into batter in 3 additions and then fold in reserved chopped rhubarb just to barely mix. Cover rhubarb in pan with batter, smooth top and bake on a sheet tray in a 350 oven until the top is golden brown and skewer inserted in middle comes clean, 45 to 50 minutes.
Let the cake cool in pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then slide a knife around sides to loosen, and using oven mitts, carefully unmold unto a plate to finish cooling. Serve with whipped cream. Makes 12 servings.