Baking rhubarb cake from my beloved Rhode Island

I think I mentioned before that shortly after G. and I started dating, he tore down his house and built a new one. Tore down is not much of an exaggeration. Except for two brick outside walls, he took the house down to the foundation and expanded the basement so it would have a larger footprint.

The day after G. took off the roof, it rained. Water poured into the house and then ran into the basement, where he still had many  belongings stored. G. tried to put tarp over the eaves to keep the rain out, but the wind blew it around and water continued to come in. After a couple of months of dry weather, it rained for a week or so.

Each day, G. would try to secure the tarp better. He would go to a friend’s house to sleep and wake up in the middle of the night. Seeing the rain had started again, he’d go over to the house and try to vacuum up some of the water that had run into the basement that night. But it was fighting a losing battle. G. couldn’t suck up the water as fast as it was pouring in.

That was when he started to get gray hair. He had almost none when we met, and within a month, he was significantly gray. He also was exhausted from working at his regular job all day and working on the house half the night. His hands hurt and then they began to go numb. I thought the house might kill him. To this day, I have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s beautiful, but it made G. old, or older, and I resent however much of his life it has taken from me.

G. realized pretty quickly that the work was tougher on his body than he had anticipated, but once he took the roof off and the house flooded, there was no going back.

During the reconstruction, he got help from V., a friend who was a trained carpenter. V. was out of work much of that summer, so he came over nearly every day and helped G. with the roughing in, roofing and so on. G. paid him some, but not enough to cover the work V. did. G. says that he owes V. a debt he can never repay.

So, last night V. and his wife, L., came over for dinner. I decided on a menu with a Southern theme that would use a lot of the vegetables we still have from the garden: pumpkin-peanut butter soup, Swiss chard quiche and spinach salad.

Dessert was an issue though. G. can’t have caffeine after noon or he will be up most of the night, and that includes anything with chocolate in it.

I was looking for non-chocolate recipes that would use ingredients I had on hand, and I pulled out The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook by Linda Beaulieu.

I spent about a year working in Providence right after I got separated. M. had been supposed to move with me, but five days after I took the job, she announced she wasn’t going, and that was the end of our five-year marriage.

When I got to Providence, I was still in shock. I’d pump myself up for work, barely get through the day and then go home and cry. My mom flew up the first weekend that I was there just to make sure I was OK. I remember sitting on the ferry to Block Island with her, and she said, “Well, that part of your life is over, but the good thing is that you’ll have a new life and you can make it whatever you want, so think carefully about what you want.”

I did, for a year. In the meantime, I worked and went out _ a lot. I met a couple of fabulous women through work and then introduced them to each other. Then they brought a few friends, and before I knew it, we had the Providence Ladies, a group of about 10 that would get together every couple of weeks for drinks. It was my support group. I’ve never before or since had a group take me in so instantly and be there so consistently through what was a really tough time.

W., one of my favorite ladies, gave me two of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. First, she told me to go a therapist, which I desperately needed to help me deal with the anger and grief caused by the divorce. Second, she told me to make a list of qualities I wanted in a spouse or significant other. Her idea was that our subconscious directs us to certain people, sometimes with less-than-stellar results. By creating a list of qualities, we direct our subconscious.

I spent over a year making that list, and it is G.: He loves me, loves Biggie B., gets along with my mom, dances, reads, is responsible with money and has his own career, so he’s not jealous of mine. He’s also _ and this is huge a bonus _ extremely, extremely funny.

I met G. about three months after I finished the list.

I was thinking about all this, and about how I am still grateful to those wonderful women who helped me turn my life around, as I was going through the cookbook. It had turned up in our office in Providence, but we didn’t do book reviews there, so it just sat around for a while. Finally, I took it home, but I never got around to making anything from it until yesterday.

Here's the cake coming out of the oven.

I made the Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake because I had rhubarb frozen from the summer and it met the no-chocolate requirement for dessert. I’d never made an upside-down cake before, and I didn’t know what to expect. In the pan, it looked like a cobbler. When I inverted it, it looked like a mushy red mess, with soft, mashed rhubarb covering the top and running over the sides.

It actually looked better once I cut it because then I could see that the rhubarb was just a coating and there was cake under there. I served it slightly warm with vanilla ice cream, and I think it was a good end to the dinner. The rhubarb held to the Southern theme, even if it came from a Rhode Island cookbook, and it’s tartness contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the cake and ice cream.

The cake after we cut it. Not so bad.

Here’s the recipe:

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

(Courtesy of  “The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook,” by Linda Beaulieu)

3 cups sliced rhubarb

1 cup sugar (divided into 2/3 and 1/3 cup)

1/2 cup butter

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup milk

1 1/4 cup flour

Mix rhubarb and 2/3 cup sugar in a small saucepan, heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Pour this mixture into the bottom of a greased, 8-inch square baking pan.

Mix remaining 1/3 cup sugar with butter. Add baking powder. Add egg and vanilla. Alternate milk and flour. Spread batter evenly over rhubarb.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Let it cool for 5 minutes and then invert onto a rack to continue cooling.

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