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Rhubarb coffee cake recipe comes straight from Grandma Sunny

Grandma Sunny’s recipe was easy to follow, consisting mostly of staple baking ingredients already in my pantry. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 2
This rhubarb coffee cake is made with buttermilk which can be replaced at home with common ingredients. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 2

I wanted to bake something new and found my inspiration in the seasonal favorite, rhubarb. When we moved into our house 12 years ago, we inherited a gorgeous and rather large rhubarb plant in the back corner of our garden. Unfortunately, my hubby mistook it for a weed and hacked it out so well that it never returned.

In his defense, he’d never had rhubarb before and just didn’t know what he was missing. But I suspect if he had grown up eating my mom’s rhubarb coffee cake, he would have created a shrine around the plant.

This recipe comes to me generationally like so many family favorites. It was handed down from my mother, who received it from her mother, my Grandma Sunny. This cake was a treat in our family when I was growing up, but it’s been years since I’ve had it, and up until now, I’d never made it myself.

Grandma Sunny’s recipe was easy to follow, consisting mostly of staple baking ingredients already in my pantry. I was pleased to find packages of good, fresh rhubarb in the produce department at my local grocery store. While there was more than I’d need for this cake, I gladly froze the extra for use in another recipe.

Buttermilk is one of the ingredients in this cake and its role is to bring tenderness to the batter, making it light, airy and full of flavor. A bit of baking soda, which reacts with the acids in the buttermilk, mellows its sourness, actively enhancing the texture of the cake as it bakes.

In a pinch, you can create your own sour milk by mixing one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice with a scant cup of milk. After sitting for five to 10 minutes, the milk will begin to curdle slightly, which is expected and won’t affect the outcome of the recipe.

Before getting started, take time to prepare your ingredients and equipment. The first step in this recipe is to cream brown sugar with butter, which requires mixing the two ingredients together for about five minutes until soft and fluffy. Softened butter always works best in this process, so I took a stick from the fridge, cut it into pieces and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before using it.

I tested this recipe twice since I misread the directions in my first attempt and used baking powder instead of baking soda. The result was still pretty good, but I couldn’t help feeling it was a little off somehow. After re-reading the recipe the next day, I realized my error and decided to make it again. This time, the cake turned out exactly as I’d remembered: moist and soft in texture and a richer, darker color than my first “mistake” cake.

Fortunately, there were no refs to cry foul at my baking error, and my moody spectators happily ate both batches. A definite win for rhubar.

Grandma Sunny’s Rhubarb Coffee Cake

Mix well in order:

1 ½ cups brown sugar

½ cup butter (1 stick, unsalted)

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk or sour milk

Sift together and add:

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

Then add:

1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ to 2 cups rhubarb, diced

Pour into:

9 x 13 pan

Mix together and top with:

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Insert a toothpick in the center of the cake to test for doneness, and when it comes out clean, the cake is ready.