I have wanted to tell you about this cake since last week, but I have faced a number of obstacles. One, it's supposed to be a rhubarb cake, and the rhubarb is not up yet. Two, my son had the chicken pox. Three, I myself have been just as sick as a dog. I had a workaround for the first problem, as you can see, but nothing but time could address the other two.

In case you are wondering if I am bandying about that expression--“sick as a dog”-- with no serious foundational understanding to back it up, let me reassure you. This was a week which saw my older daughter, my son, myself and one of our actual dogs in the throes of some illness or another, and though our complaints differ it is the dog whom I feel I most closely resembled at the low point. He had one of those epic nights other dog-owners may be familiar with, the ones titled “Upon Reflection, I Probably Should Not Have Eaten That Thing I Found,” and someone could have made their fortune by setting up a camera to capture the raw comedic power of a person in their sleeping attire learning, at 3 am, that the dog crate will not fit through the sliding door onto the porch, but the dog will--and he will also fit through the porch railing onto the second-floor slanted metal roof, off of which, still making the ‘hooka-hooka’ pre-hurling noise, he will try to jump while you manhandle the crate that is corking the door that separates you from him and the possibility of convincing him that life is full and rich and well worth living.

But I think we may have slid off the topic. (The dog, please note, did not slide off the roof).

Cake! Rhubarb cake! Once the first little croci and daffodils begin poking their heads up here, I start getting excited for rhubarb. As fruity as it may seem, rhubarb is in fact a vegetable, one that is not native to these parts (it originated in China as a potent medicinal) but has been cultivated here since the early 19th century. It has the distinction of being one of the first local foods to come into season, so I think it deserves its own holiday.

Judging by the nubbin pictured above, we have a few weeks yet to plan the party, but we can do some pre-season warm-up by trying the cake out with something else in its place.

The cake isn’t very hard to master. It is stupendously simple, in fact, and a great cake to have up your sleeve even when your life is right side-up. On its own it is a very tasty layer cake if you bump into a birthday cake emergency, and a tweak here and there will give you, for example, a lemon-poppyseed cake. But like most of us, its true mettle is revealed when life turns it upside down.

A few notes. Lacking rhubarb, but suddenly rich with lemons, I went with a mixture of those and oranges, but you could substitute apples or pears just as easily. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is ideal here, as it is ideal in many other applications. Mine is 10” in diameter and suits the quantities perfectly and I think everyone should have one, so much do I rely on it.

It helps in the magical process of mixing the batter to have the ingredients for the cake at room temperature, or at least not ice-box cold. Finally, I have made this with a gluten-free flour blend and not minded the outcome, so you could consider that, too.

upside down cake

  • 4 T butter (half a stick)
  • about 6 stalks rhubarb, sliced into 1/2" slices, or enough of some other sliced fruit to cover the interior of your pan
  • 4-5T light brown sugar
  • 1 ½ c flour
  • ¼ c golden flax meal or almond meal (or equivalent amount of flour)
  • 3/4 c sugar
  • 1 ½ t baking powder
  • ½ t baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • ½ c buttermilk
  • ¼ c milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2t vanilla
  • 1 stick butter, soft
  • possibly a scrape or two of lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350.

In a cast iron skillet, melt the 4T butter until foamy. Sprinkle the sugar as evenly as possible over the butter and continue to heat a minute or two, until it is mostly melted (not all of it will be). Remove from heat. Sprinkle the rhubarb slices (or arrange the fruit slices) evenly over this mixture--you should have one flat layer covering all of the sugar. Don't stir.

Put all the remaining ingredients in a bowl (a kitchen aid/stand mixer is ideal); first the dry, then the wet. Mix on low speed until everything is combined, then mix at medium high speed until the batter is uniformly fluffy (1-2minutes). Glop the batter over the rhubarb mixture and gently even it out as best you can, trying not to disturb the fruit layer. It is pretty remarkable how messy a job of this you can do and still have it come out OK--it smooths out quite a lot as it bakes. Bake until cake tests done in center (30 min or so). Cool a few minutes in the pan, then loosen sides with a butter knife and using the necessary hot pads and mittens, invert onto a serving plate.