Oh me oh my this cake.
It was a labor of determination, let me tell you.
The thing about my cake ideas is that they are just that, ideas. They are ephemeral, yet to be turned into real, edible desserts. In some ways, I prefer them that way. My ideas can live in the safety of my mind, constantly evolving and perfecting, but existing in a future, flawlessly presented state, unblemished by reality or my fumbling execution.
But eventually, ideas have to be acted on, and it is then that they show themselves for what they are actually going to be, whether a cake with an overly enthusiastic caramel drip, a too-subtly flavored cardamom cake, or a semi-nude lemon (but no thyme) delight. Usually in the reality vs. expectation war, casualties are rare for me. If my cakes come out not quite as expected but still delicious, I'm happy to call the battle a win and move on.
But this particular cake gave me pause. It was just tricky for me on all levels, from deciding on a flavor profile to deciding how to bring those flavors into a cake, to then trying to accomplish my original intent, to finally retreating a bit before a second try.
I knew I wanted to use rhubarb because it is gloriously in season, brilliant red stalks filling the shelves of the produce aisle. But I also had this nagging desire to pair it with pears, all because of a memorable scoop of gelato I ate in Sydney back in November. This pairing raised a few questions for me then, because rhubarb and pears are residents of opposite seasons, so how did they even find each other? The flavor combination was so delicious though that I just decided not to care. As for my interpretation, I still hesitated. While I can certainly find pears now, I didn't really want to bake with them in my current, Spring-loving mood. I knew I would be tempted to pair them with a spice cake and probably some ginger and, well, that just seemed so...autumnal.
So in my first attempt I went with a basic vanilla cake paired with the rhubarb, and compromised with an apple cider mousse made with sparkling cider. That way I still got the flavor without using the actual fruit, and apple seemed somehow a less daring choice in May than pears. The end result was just ok, though. The individual elements were good, but together, I just felt they didn't add up to anything that special. The mousse was fussy and I didn't like the way it changed the texture of the cake layers, and as for the flavor, you can never go wrong with vanilla and rhubarb together, but I suspected those autumnal spices I had hesitated to add were the missing element.
But then! A couple weeks ago I saw this cake and realized I'm not the only one craving fall flavors with my spring produce! I took it as permission to proceed with my original vision and embarked on Rhubarb Pear Cake 2.0. This time, I used the spice cake base from my Apple, Brie & Caramel cake, and sandwiched it around the same vanilla rhubarb compote from version 1.0 and a hard pear cider custard instead of a mousse. The whole cake then got frosted in a blanket of pear cider buttercream before being gently wrapped in a striped coat of many-colored rhubarb.
Sure, the buttercream still doesn't taste enough like pear for me to be completely happy with it, and my rhubarb wrapping skills are amateur hour, but I'm calling it! The final cake is close enough to my initial vision that I'm not embarrassed to post it here, I get to have my rhubarb and taste pears too, and now I have yummy cake filling my freezer. WIN-WIN-WIN.
Vanilla Rhubarb Pear Cider Cake
Rhubarb decoration technique adapted from Sprinkle Bakes. Spice cake adapted from King Arthur Flour. This makes one 6-inch cake. Pear Cider reduction, cake, rhubarb filling, and pear cider custard can all be made ahead.
Hard Pear Cider Reduction
- 3 cups hard pear cider, like Perry
Pear Cider Spice cake:
- 1 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour
- 3/4 cup cake flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 2/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/4 cup reduced pear cider
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
Vanilla Rhubarb compote:
- 2 stalks rhubarb, trimmed of leaves
- 1 small vanilla bean pod, split
- 2 tbs sugar
- 3/4 cup water
Pear Cider Ginger Custard:
- 1/4 cup hard pear cider reduction
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- pinch salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 tbs cornstarch
- 1/2 tbs unsalted butter, softened
Hard Pear Cider Buttercream:
- 3 egg whites
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 1/4 sticks (9 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/4 cup reduced pear cider
- 4-5 stalks of rhubarb
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Make the cider reduction: Simmer cider over medium heat until reduced to 3/4 cup, remove from heat and let cool.
- Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees and prepare three 6 inch cake pans. Butter the bottom and sides of pans, line bottoms with a circle of parchment, butter the parchment, then dust the pans with a coating of flour. Set aside.
- Whisk the dry ingredients except sugar and cream of tartar together and set aside. In the bowl of a mixer, rub the ginger and sugar together until fully mixed. Add the egg yolks and oil, and mix at low speed to combine. Add water and reduced cider and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes, then fold in the dry ingredients.
- In another bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy, then add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form, then fold the whites into the batter, being careful not to deflate them too much.
- Divide batter among the cake pans and bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes on a cooling rack in the pan, then turn out onto the rack and cool completely.
- While cake is baking and cooling, make the fillings. Chop rhubarb stalks into 1/2 inch pieces. Add to a pot with the sugar and vanilla pod, and cover with the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Cover, and simmer for 20 minutes until rhubarb has melted into a pulpy mass. Remove from the heat, uncover and let cool, then strain through a fine mesh strainer. Reserve the lovely pink syrup for another use (it makes an excellent soda). Set rhubarb aside to cool completely.
- Make the custard: In a small pot over medium heat, whisk together 1/4 cup of the cider reduction with the sugar, ginger, and sour cream. Cook until hot but not boiling.
- In a bowl, whisk the eggs and then slowly pour in a bit of the hot mixture to temper the eggs, then slowly add the remaining mixture. Dissolve the cornstarch in 1/2 tbs water and whisk into the mixture. Return to the heat and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the butter, then pour through a fine mesh strainer into a shallow dish to cool completely. Once cooled, whisk until smooth.
- Make the buttercream: Set a heatproof bowl of an electric mixer (or any large heatproof bowl if you are using a hand mixer) over a pot of simmering water. Combine the egg whites and sugar in the bowl and cook, whisking constantly, until sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch (about 160 degrees).
- Transfer the bowl to the mixer and beat with a whisk attachment until stiff but not dry peaks. Continue beating about 6 minutes more, until fluffy and cooled.
- Switch to the paddle attachment, and turn the mixer to medium-low. Add the butter a few tablespoons at a time and beat well after each addition. Beat in the remaining pear cider reduction, then beat on lowest speed for 2 minutes.
- Prepare the rhubarb strips: Using a sharp vegetable peeler (Y-shape is best), peel long strips off the rhubarb stalks. Bring water and sugar to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Drop rhubarb strips 2 or 3 at a time into the simmering water, and cook for 20-30 seconds, then remove and lay out onto paper towel lined baking sheets to cool and drain.
- Assemble the cake: trim the cake layers as necessary to flatten the tops. Pipe a thick border of the buttercream around the circumference of the first layer, then fill with the pear custard and then the rhubarb compote. Stack another layer on top and repeat. Once all three layers are stacked, frost the cake with a crumb coat of the buttercream, then frost with remaining buttercream.
- Wrap the cake: Lay strips across the top of the cake, trimming with kitchen scissors to appropriate lengths. Then, starting at the bottom of the cake, wrap strips around, trimming as necessary.
- Before slicing, it's best to make sure cake is well chilled and you have a very sharp knife to cut through the fibrous rhubarb.