i’m super excited to reveal the next contributor to the Coming Home book – this time, it’s not a knitting pattern, but a DELICIOUS cake recipe and beautiful essay. and who better to write about cake than the marvellous Clara Parkes?….
When life gets tough, when I’ve finished my word count, and I can’t see the stitches straight anymore, my favorite thing in the world is to walk over to the stove, preheat it to 350 degrees, and make a cake.
A good cake recipe is like a good knitting pattern. It’ll have a pretty picture, a list of ingredients, and then step-by-step instructions for assembling them into a beautiful, three-dimensional object. But, instead of requiring potentially hundreds of dollars’ worth of ingredients and producing something you’ll have for years, a good cake costs a fraction of the price, takes under two hours to complete, and is devoured almost immediately. In the face of heirloom textile creations, baking offers a moment of exquisite beauty, and then it’s gone. I find this juxtaposition tantalizing.
A good cake recipe will also, like its knitting counterpart, leave room for improvisation. It offers the batter equivalent of a stockinette panel you can adorn with a cable or a simple motif, the k1/p1 ribbing you can switch to k2/p2 ribbing if so inclined. Ideally the recipes might even explain why and how and where you could improvise, and how different decisions might affect the finished outcome. If not, then it’s up to you to experiment and learn.
When not writing about the mechanics of crimp and micron and twist and ply from my kitchen table, I’ve spent years at the kitchen counter experimenting with cake recipes. For much the same reason I’ve always been intrigued by the science of wool, I’m fascinated by the science of baking. There are so many variables — the temperature of your butter, the timing of when you add flavor to fat, the ratio of baking soda to baking powder and what each does (or doesn’t) do to your batter. Like breed, prep, twist, and ply, if you consider all the potential factors in baking, you could spend your whole life doing it and still have more to learn. Sure, you might add a few flops to the compost pile. But most of the time, you’ll have the joy of handing your beloved a big slice of cake that says, “I love you.”
All of which explains, I hope, why I was so pleased when Lilith asked me to contribute a recipe to this book. Nothing says “coming home” quite like a fresh-baked cake — and not just the finished product, but all the steps that went into its creation.
As soon as we started talking, I discovered that Lilith and I share a mutual adoration of rhubarb. Hers is rooted in her grandmother’s patch in Scotland, a massive plot from which she baked endless sweets. My own patch is minuscule by comparison, planted here in Maine just a few years ago and just now coming into its own. Having had zero background in the subtle arts of rhubarbia, I’ve been making up for lost time with it in the kitchen.
My early experiments began, as most do, by stewing the rhubarb in sugar syrup, condensing it down to a flavorful goo, and then giving it a good glug of heavy cream before devouring it with a happy moan.
Next, I next tried separating the brown, pulpy goo from its pink, flavorful syrup. I reserved the former for cakes that normally called for applesauce (good tip, give it a try), and I added a splash of the latter to pancakes and bubbly summer gin drinks.
But for this project, I wanted to bake a classic cake that had it all. How could I highlight rhubarb’s intense sweet/tart, almost citrusy flavor while preserving those gorgeous bright red and green colors? After several experiments (each gleefully consumed by summer visitors and a spouse with a ridiculously fast metabolism), I settled on just the right combination of ingredients. The result is the cake recipe you’ll find in this book, a simple, beautiful, flavorful creation.
Like those favorite knitting patterns of mine, this recipe also has room for you to play. Should rhubarb not be available, you can easily swap it for other fruits or berries — and, as with crimp, twist, and ply, you’ll notice subtle differences in the finished product. But if you have a garden plot of your own and it doesn’t yet include rhubarb, I strongly urge you to carve out a permanent corner and start planting. Each spring, when nothing else shows a sign of life, you’ll get to watch friendly, colorful stalks pop up from the frozen earth and reach their leafy hands to the sky, as if to wave, “Welcome home.”
for the purposes of tech editing, i selflessly baked and tested this cake several times (ahem!) and can attest to its wonderfulness!! it’s not overly complicated or hard to put together, but the results are just gorgeous. i’ve also tried it with other fruit and can confirm it works almost as well – but if you can get your hands on some tart, flavourful rhubarb then you should definitely try the original version first. i’m so grateful to Clara for being involved in this project, it was an absolute pleasure working with her! you can find out more about what she does when she’s not inventing cakes on her website here.