Editor’s note: Living in the Colorado high country is pure joy. Baking in it isn’t. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
Spoon cake, cobbler, pudding cake, buckle or grunt ... all are names given to desserts such as this one, featuring fruit combined with cake batter. Whatever you call them, they’re a great example of traditional heartland baking — wholesome, unpretentious and satisfying.
This variation is particularly good; the strawberries and rhubarb provide a wonderful pairing of sweet and sour tastes and the cake is light and flavored with butter and vanilla. As it bakes, the cake soaks up the juices from the fruit until some parts of it are saturated; the result is a texture so moist and soft that, in some places, it’s almost gooey. So it won’t cut precisely or maintain a perfect shape when served. But, don’t worry, its taste will make up for any resulting lack of good looks.
Its simplicity demands high-quality ingredients. Look for rhubarb stalks that are dark red and unbruised. The strawberries should be ripe and flavorful. Frozen rhubarb works well if it’s defrosted slightly, though it may take a little longer to cook to a softened state. Avoid frozen strawberries, they haven’t proven to be a good substitute for fresh ones in this recipe.
Do I need to suggest that you serve this all-American gem warm and that ice cream is a perfect accompaniment? I doubt it; some things are self-evident.
Strawberry-rhubarb spoon cake
Adjusted for altitudes of 8,000 feet and higher. Make in an 8-by-8-inch glass baking pan.
1/3 plus 1/2 cup superfine granulated sugar, preferably Bakers’
2 teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon dark rum or more water
2 cups (about 10 ounces) chopped rhubarb stalks, cut into 3/4 inch slices
1 generous cup chopped fresh strawberries, cut into 3/4 inch pieces
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the middle position. Grease the pan and set it aside.
Combine the 1⁄3 cup sugar, cornstarch, water and rum (if using) in a large saucepan and whisk to combine well. Use a heatproof silicone spatula or wooden spoon to stir in the rhubarb pieces. Heat over medium heat, stirring, until the mixture boils. Simmer it, continuing to stir, until the mixture thickens and the rhubarb softens, about 3-4 minutes. Remove it from the heat and gently stir in the strawberries. Set this aside.
Add the flour, baking powder, salt and remaining 1/2 cup sugar to a bowl and whisk vigorously to combine. Set aside.
Cut the butter into eight pieces, add them to a microwaveable large mixing bowl and microwave until they melt. Remove and cool, if necessary, to lukewarm. Add the egg, milk and vanilla and whisk until very well blended. Add the flour mixture and whisk or stir with a silicone spatula only until combined and smooth. Don’t overmix or the cake will be tough.
Reserve a heaping 1/2 cup of the fruit mixture and scrape the rest in the bottom of the prepared baking pan, distributing it evenly and gently leveling it. Pour the batter over the fruit and spread it evenly. Drizzle the 1/2 cup of fruit over the top of the batter.
Bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 23-30 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes and serve or cool completely, cover lightly and store at cool room temperature for several hours, and reheat in a 350-degree oven, tented with a piece of aluminum foil, until warm to the touch. Serve warm alone or with ice cream. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.
This is a variation of a recipe from Gourmet magazine.
Vera Dawson, author of the new high-altitude cookbook “Cookies in the Clouds” (available at The Bookworm of Edwards), is a chef instructor with CMC’s Culinary Institute. She lives in Summit County, and her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.