Dessert at my summer camp was taken extremely seriously. Actually, seeing as we were outside all day running around and breathing in good island air, food in general was taken seriously. But dessert, well, fights broke out over dessert. It is not that anything was particularly special, just that it was sweet. We were each allowed 35 cents worth of candy a week at the camp’s little store and other than that, sugar came after dinner and you had to share it with the seven other people at your table.
Very often dessert was peach crisp. Sounds good, right? Knowing what I do now I can tell you that it was canned peaches covered with crushed up leftover granola mixed with maybe a tiny bit of butter. I didn’t care. I thought the topping – so crisp! so sweet! – was one of the most marvelous things I had ever tasted. It is definitely camp that started me on a lifelong love of crumb topping. There was once a time that I didn’t like pie because I had only ever tasted pumpkin (still don’t like) or pecan (ditto). Then one summer, my mom made a blueberry pie with, you guessed it, a crumb topping and hey what do you know? I like pie!
Crumb topping followed me into my first baking experiences. As a newbie, I tried to keep it simple and I made a lot of apple crisps. It turns out I am not alone in my love for crumb topping. A good crisp is really just a pie without a bottom crust and I still like my fruit better this way.
What I love about this cake is that it does not pretend to be something that it’s not. It’s a crumb topping disguised as a cake. The cake part is thin and nicely sweet, there is a layer of tart rhubarb on top of that, and then a thick ceiling of crumb topping. Just the way it should be.
I brought this to a brunch for Easter and it really is perfect brunch cake. It could also be pretty amazing after dinner with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Whichever you choose, I would try to serve the cake the day it is made. It loses a little bit of its crunch as it sits.
For the rhubarb filling
½ pound rhubarb, trimmed
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch
½ tsp. ground ginger
For the big crumbs
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. salt
½ cup butter, melted
1¾ cup cake flour
For the cake
1/3 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour
½ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces
1. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan.
2. For the filling, slice the rhubarb ½-inch thick and toss with the sugar, cornstarch, and ginger. Let macerate while you prepare the crumbs and cake.
3. To make the crumbs, in a large bowl, whisk together the sugars, spices, salt, and butter until smooth. Stir in the flour with a spatula. It will look like a solid dough.
4. To prepare the cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and a spoonful of the sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until the flour is moistened. Increase the speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add the remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about ½ cup of the batter and set aside.
5. Scrape the remaining batter into the prepared pan. Spoon the rhubarb over the batter. Dollop the remaining batter over the rhubarb (it doesn’t have to be even).
6. Using your fingers, break the topping mixture into big crumbs, about ½-inch to ¾-inch in size. They don’t have to be uniform; just make sure the majority are around that size. Sprinkle the crumbs over the cake. Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean of batter (it might be moist from the rhubarb), 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.