Friendship and Rhubarb Almond Crumb Cake
In the quiet of the early morning or as I’m drifting off to sleep at night, I think about the blessings in my life. Friends are often high on that list, because blood isn’t always thicker than water. You choose your friends. And they must choose you.
Two weeks ago I whiled away my Sunday afternoon in the home of complete strangers. My friend Selga–the first friend I made when I moved to Chicago in ’97–thought it was a bad idea. “Let me get this straight. A man you’ve never met cast an open invitation to a party and you accepted?”
“Uhm, yes,” I had answered albeit a little defensively. Maybe it was a bit unusual, but I couldn’t say no–it was a cheese making party.
“What do you know about this guy?” Selga asked.
“I know that he likes cheese. Oh, and he’s Italian,” I said, adding the last bit as if his association with my favorite cuisine cleared him of all suspicion.
Selga’s concerned line of questioning continued, but I wasn’t swayed. Who’d ever heard of a serial killer that launched their spree with a mozzarella making party? Besides, our gracious host Michele, A Tuscan Foodie in America, and the designated Chicago host for Food52‘s Mozzarella Potluck, was opening his home to not just one, but ten, curious, cheese-loving strangers. I’d be in good company.
On the day of the party, Michele and his lovely wife Valerie greeted me with warm smiles and handshakes. I smiled back thinking of Selga. A rash of last minute cancellations turned our party of ten into a party of five; it would be a more intimate afternoon than I had imagined. Simone and Alain, who were also from Italy, arrived just as we were popping the cork on the prosecco and Michele was pulling a golden focaccia from the oven. Simone brought a tray of parmigiana. Alain had made a pepper-flecked crescia (“a flatbread with corn flour typical of the Marches region in Italy”). I slathered my warm focaccia with Michele’s silky, rich chicken liver pate. Standing comfortably in the company of strangers we shared slices of our lives outside of Michele’s kitchen. I didn’t care if we ever got to the matter of making cheese.
Hours passed. The mozzarella, which we finally got around to making, was a bit dry and bland. The creamy ricotta, however, that Michele made from the leftover mozzarella whey was the best I’d ever tasted. We enjoyed it for dessert alongside Valerie’s molten chocolate cakes and homemade rhubarb gelato. So much love had gone into the food we’d all prepared–for total strangers. Our hearts and bellies full, it was time to go. We parted not with handshakes, but with kisses on each cheek, promising to meet again soon in the name of delicious food.
If that Sunday was all about new friends, this past weekend was about old friends–twenty-two years and counting old friends. I made this cake, or a version of it, to share with two of my college girlfriends as we lingered over morning coffee and stories of life in Brooklyn, Richmond, and Chicago. I made their cake with love, but baked it in a flurry. Hoping that time would be on my side, I pulled it from the oven a little early so I could run to the store for a few weekend essentials. I returned home to find that the cake had collapsed in the center. It was the kind of cake I’m usually too embarrassed to share, the kind of cake that I’d never consider sharing with new friends, like Michele. But it was the kind of cake I could share with friends so firmly rooted in my personal history. These women have been the loyal guardians of my dirty secrets for more than half my life. They remind me that I’m fabulous at the precise moment when I stop believing it. They’re the kind of friends that savor every bite of your wilted cake as if they can taste the love with which it was baked.
Rhubarb Almond Crumb Cake
Pretty pink slices of rhubarb suspended in a dense, moist, golden cake. Have a little slice for breakfast with a spoonful of crème fraîche. Or serve it up for dessert, alone or next to a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The batter is versatile enough to work with most any fruit. If you make it with a sweeter fruit, consider reducing the amount of granulated sugar in the batter.
Butter for greasing the pan
2 tablespoons white whole wheat flour (or all purpose)
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 tablespoons rolled oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour (or all purpose)
1 1/2 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2″ pieces
8-inch, deep, fluted tart pan or 8-inch springform pan
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and sides of the baking pan.
- For the crumb, combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl. Using a fork or your fingers, gently work in the butter until pea-sized lumps are formed.
- Combine the eggs, sugar, salt, and almond extract in a large bowl. Beat on high until the mixture triples in volume, about five minutes. Fold in the melted butter, flour, and rhubarb. Evenly spread the thick batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake for 60-75 minutes, until the topping is deeply golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the pan when it’s completely cool.
Makes 8-10 servings.