Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

May 14, 2014

If you're like us, you look to the seasons for what to cook. Get to the market, and we'll show you what to do with your haul.

Today: It’s officially time to start putting fruit in your cakes. Celebrate with this three-step beauty.

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I planned on bringing you olive-oil braised vegetables, carrying on with the celebration of green and the shouting about spring from the rooftops in chorus with everyone, everywhere.  

But then this cake sailed into my life just as I was writing out a grocery list full of austere words like fennel and carrots and potatoes. This cake spoke of rhubarb, lemon, sugar, butter. It sang to me. The vegetables would wait. 

And it got even better than its rousing ingredient list: You start it like a tarte tatin, caramelizing the fruit in a hot bath of sugar and butter. When everything gently slouches, you top it with a one-bowl dough. Halfway through reading the recipe, I was already baking it my head.


In its earliest form, this recipe, hailing from the Saveur archives, touts shortening and a good bit of sugar. It’s sweet, just this side of cloying, but still nice -- the way sitting on your grandma’s porch in August is sweet. I replaced the shortening with butter for flavor and bumped up the acid to chaperone the sugar. (It still tastes like grandma’s house; this time she just got a little handsy with her lemon.) This is the sort of cake that gets placed in front of you on long weekends home, a second slice waiting in the wings for when the first is finished. 

But you’d do well to make it more of an everyday reality: Melt rhubarb, butter, and sugar together in a cast iron skillet, then lay down clumps of sturdy dough onto the warm fruit; it will act less like a blanket and more like a dowdy, misshapen comforter. It will feel a lot like a cobbler, and you’ll worry you’re doing something wrong. Put it in the oven anyway.

The cake’s baking powder will pinch hit, making the batter rise on up to cover any spots of rhubarb you may have missed. (In this way, it’s like a tarte tatin you can’t mess up.) It will grow into a cake. Then comes the drama: Say a quick prayer and flip it upside down. You’ll wonder again, briefly, if this is actually a cobbler and will it collapse everywhere. Trust it.

What you’ll reveal is an underside that’s a mess of girlishly pink, warm rhubarb jam perched smugly on top of a buttery crumb. "Did you think I wasn’t going to work?" it’ll coo.

Take this cake to a cookout or a picnic or eat it for breakfast, with a mug of tea. (This is practice, of course, for pie season, when you will eat cold slices on many mornings.) Serve it as a part of a brunch spread; bring it out with sparkling wine at the end of a leisurely dinner party. It’s a roller coaster of a cake, but and at the end, you’ll want to make it again. And again. 

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from Saveur  

Serves 8 to 10 

1 1/2 cups sugar, divided 
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 1 stick and 6 tablespoons cut into 1/2-inch cubes and chilled
Zest of one lemon 
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided 
Scant 1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Ice cream or whipped cream for serving, optional  

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.

Photos by Eric Moran  

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Shalifa
  • LauriL
  • jacqui
  • Dianecpa
  • Robyn Burgess
    Robyn Burgess
Kenzi Wilbur

Written by: Kenzi Wilbur

I have a thing for most foods topped with a fried egg, a strange disdain for overly soupy tomato sauce, and I can never make it home without ripping off the end of a newly-bought baguette. I like spoons very much.


Shalifa June 4, 2014
Dh said I could make it again. :)
Shalifa June 3, 2014
I'll find out soon. I made it today after wanting to for a week and a half or two. About to sit down for suppe.
LauriL May 28, 2014
Definitely for Dad's birthday cake tomorrow...hint...hint...Hahaha!
jacqui May 14, 2014
Looks wonderful! Have rhubarb in fridge - will be making this later today!
Dianecpa May 14, 2014
Looks lovely, maybe when rhubarb is in season I can try this!
Kenzi W. May 14, 2014
It's at our markets now! I hope it comes to wherever yours are very soon.
Robyn B. May 14, 2014
Awesome! I made a similar adaptation of the Saveur recipe a few weeks ago, but with cornbread instead of cake. I'm not one for cloyingly sweet, so the buttermilk was a great balance. And it's definitely for breakfast.
Kenzi W. May 14, 2014
Oh. Wow.
Laurelb May 14, 2014
I don't gave a cast iron skillet. Can I just cook in a regular frypan and then put ingredients in a cake pan? How will this affect cooking time
fiveandspice May 14, 2014
This is a VERY good idea, and I think I will be eating it for breakfast toute de suite, as they say in that place where they make things into tatins.
Kenzi W. May 14, 2014
Oui oui.

God I need to study my French.
Catherine L. May 14, 2014
This is all I want for breakfast every day.
Cristina S. May 14, 2014
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!
Marian B. May 14, 2014
I love it when grandma gets handsy with her lemon.