Q: Enclosed is a recipe for rhubarb cake. It seemed like such a good idea when I first tried it, but the result was more steamed dumpling than cake. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Shortened cakes -- those made by creaming butter and sugar, then adding egg, flour, baking powder or soda and liquid -- are not like ice cream. There are a number of flavors which change while baking and, if used in excess, can ruin the cake. This is certainly true of fruits and fruit pure'es, which are acidic, contain very delicate flavor chemicals, and lose their original colors when baked.
Rhubarb is among the most acidic of fruits. Its acids cause gumminess by chemically altering flour's starch molecules and protein. When baked, rhubarb chunks dissolve into pools of liquid, seeping into the surrounding batter and producing islands of sogginess. To prevent this, you have to precook the rhubarb by steaming it in a little water, then running it through a blender or food processor. You also have to add baking soda to neutralize the rhubarb's acids. Your recipe contains baking soda, but only enough to neutralize the acids of the buttermilk, the flavor of which is lost anyway and is therefore quite functionless in the recipe.
I have altered your recipe in the following ways:
Removed the sour milk. The fruit pure'e is 90 percent or more water. Adding more liquid only makes the cake soggier and the flavor of milk is masked by the rhubarb.
Cut the cake's rhubarb content in half and used pure'e rather than diced rhubarb.
Removed 1 egg. Whole egg is 70 percent water; the second egg was unnecessary.
Added nutmeats for texture.
Added lemon peel to enhance the fruit flavor.
RHUBARB CAKE (Makes 1 tube or bundt cake)
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups diced rhubarb
3/4 cup lightly salted butter, softened slightly
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup walnut (or black walnut) pieces
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Simmer water and diced rhubarb in a saucepan until rhubarb is soft. Pure'e in blender or food processor. Return pure'e to saucepan and continue cooking until the pure'e thickens. It should make at least a cup of pure'e. Cool to room temperature.
Reserve 1/4 cup of the softened butter in a small mixing bowl. This will be for the streusel topping. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of the softened butter in a large mixing bowl and add 1 1/4 cups sugar to it. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar to the small bowl. Cream the butter and sugar in the larger bowl until light. Add the egg, salt, baking soda, lemon peel, vanilla and 1/2 cup of the flour. Blend for a minute on low speed. Scrape sides and bottom of mixing bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the cup of rhubarb pure'e and 1 cup of the remaining flour ( 1/2 cup should be left). Blend until the batter is smooth -- for about another minute. Stir in the nutmeats.
Transfer batter to a greased and floured tube or bundt pan. Mix the reserved butter and sugar together, then add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and the cinnamon. Sprinkle this streusel over the cake batter. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick, inserted into the batter's center, emerges clean.
Q: How do you make farina dumplings? I have eaten them in some soups and was told that the tasty little dumplings had been made of farina.
A: There are two ways to make farina dumplings:
1. Precook the starch granules in the farina to make a paste, then drop the Cream of Wheat-like paste into simmering stock or soup and serve almost immediately.
2. Make a paste of softened butter, whole egg and farina, form balls and cook them in a simmering stock.
The first method is the easier, and a recipe for it can be found in most editions of "The Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. It has the disadvantage of producing little, milky balls having a somewhat pasty texture. This doesn't go too well with a nice consomme' or delicate stew.
The second method, though more difficult, produces dumplings that still have a little resistance to the bite and that don't have a milky flavor. To make them, follow this recipe:
FARINA DUMPLINGS (Makes 48 dumplings)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
4 room-temperature eggs, beaten until smooth
1 cup farina (or semolina)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 quart stock or water
Cream butter until fluffy and light. Add half the beaten eggs and half the farina. Blend until smooth. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl. Add remaining beaten egg and farina along with salt, pepper and parsley. Blend until smooth. Refrigerate for 1 hour before using.
Bring stock or lightly salted water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drop in the dumplings from a teaspoon. To do this, scrape the teaspoon against the side of the bowl, forcing the dumpling paste to turn in the bowl of the spoon and form a ball. Push this off into the water or stock. Work quickly so all the dumplings cook about the same time. Or, if you're preparing a few dozen, drop each onto a greased plate and then into the water.
Simmer 10 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and let the dumplings sit in the hot liquid for 20 to 30 minutes. This makes the nicest dumplings, as they don't fall apart. For faster results, simmer 15 to 25 minutes in the water or stock. Remove with a slotted spoon and serve.