This lunar rhubarb cake is a thing – do you know of it? It has made the rounds of Canadian kitchens for decades and generations, far before the internet and Pinterest made it easier to share, back when great aunts and neighbours scribbled down the formula for that cake they always make that’s so good. Everyone seems to remember this.
It’s called lunar cake because its surface resembles the pocked surface of the moon, only in this case it becomes irregular and uneven because of the fruit and buttery brown sugar that sinks into the top. (Any fruit will work here – I love these recipes that you can use no matter what’s in season. I already can’t wait for plums.) I’d heard of it but never made one, thinking it was the same sort of fruit-topped cake I’d made dozens of versions of, but when it popped up in the new cookbook by Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller, whose lives I would quickly adopt if I could just dial back 20 years or so, who hopped in a car and ate their way across Canada and then compiled their journey in FEAST: An Edible Road Trip, I knew I had to give it a go. (Also, I’m still trying to use up last year’s epic stash of frozen rhubarb before this year’s crop starts to spring from the ground.)
Spoiler alert: this is much better than any like-minded cakes I’ve baked in the past. Of course Elizabeth Baird knew what she was doing when she took it out and brushed it off for the masses back in 1989.
Confession: I didn’t follow Elizabeth’s instructions directly. Partly because I didn’t want to thaw and drain my frozen rhubarb – typically I just add it to batters frozen, and I didn’t want to lose all that flavourful juice.
And then I neglected to stir said rhubarb into the batter, thinking it went over the surface and sunk in. But once I had spread the batter into the parchment-lined pan, I didn’t want to scoop it out again in order to stir in the rhubarb – I spread it out on top and pressed it in a bit with the back of my spatula, and it worked just fine. I think I’d do it that way again, even knowing that the original recipe called for stirring it in. I think it might even look more lunar this way, too.
The finished cake looks plain, but it’s more intensely buttery and – I don’t want to say sweet, because that can be off-putting and one-dimensional – but more crunchy-topped and caramelized than a typical, straight-up cake. It’s not gooey, but verges on it – served warm, with ice cream, it’s one of the best things I can think of doing with rhubarb. (Also – I love a cake that you don’t have to decorate.)
The book, by the way, is loaded with great tales of Canadian culinary adventures, with stories, histories and recipes from some of my favourite food people from coast to coast. It’s the kind of book I want to absorb all of, and keep propped by my bed just to browse through. It celebrates Canadian cuisine through fresh eyes, with foods you associate with Canada (Nanaimo bars! butter tarts made the right way, with currants!) and new flavours inspired by regional ingredients. (And yes, I even got to contribute a recipe for barley pancakes with blueberry syrup!)
This cake though. It’s going to be in heavy rotation around here.