Surely, I thought, surely I would be able to find rhubarb at some store or another this early spring holiday week. I knew it would be hothouse and, most likely, from either Holland or Washington but the thing is this: I am done with you, Old Man Winter. DONE.
After three fruitless stops I landed at Whole Foods. I looked around on my own and then asked a friendly produce stocker if they had any rhubarb. “Yeah, it’s right over here,” he said, pointing to the shelves I had just examined. ”Unless,” he said, “Unless someone bought it all. Yeah, it looks like it’s gone. But let me check in back.”
All I wanted to do was make rhubarb upside-down cake. The universe (at least below 14th Street) was not on my side.
So I did the rest of my shopping, wandering the unfamiliar aisles (I rarely shop at WF), past all of the produce I didn’t need, past the olive bar and something labeled “vegan sugar”, mumbling to myself.
“Well, I could make radicchio upside-down cake or hey, how about cornichon upside-down cake. Yeah, wouldn’t that be delicious, [expletive, expletive].”
But then it occurred to me: I could TOTALLY make a savory upside-down cake! With asparagus! And lots of parmesan in the batter!
I trimmed the asparagus, put it into a well-buttered skillet, and then worked on the batter. It’s a typical butter cake, where the butter and sugar are creamed, eggs are added, and then the dry and liquid (in this case crème fraîche) are added alternately. To make it savory, I left out most (but not all) of the sugar, added some minced garlic, lemon zest, plenty of black pepper to the butter while it creamed, upped the salt, and folded in grated parmesan at the end.
I spread the batter over the asparagus, put it in the oven, and crossed my fingers.
When it was done I took it out, let it cool for a few minutes, and inverted it onto a plate.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to say that it was a success of the it-made-me-reconsider-my-dinner-plans variety. I couldn’t stop eating it.
This is not the place for that tender, pencil thin asparagus, as it will turn to mush during baking. If you can’t find crème frâiche or want to lighten the recipe a little, try using whole milk or yogurt. Other vegetables could certainly be used: I think mushrooms, sauteed first, would be particularly good and even the radicchio (also cooked first) that I joked about might work.
Cornichons? Not so much.
I would serve this for a casual supper or brunch, with some Prosciutto or Serrano ham, and a crunchy radish salad maybe. Or, you know, you could just leave it on the table and take a bite every time you pass, no matter if it’s meal time or not. It’s best served warm, though it works at room temp, too. Don’t make it in advance; eat it the day you bake it. This shouldn’t be too difficult.
Savory Parmesan Upside-Down Cake with Asparagus
6-8 oz asparagus, not super-thin
3 oz (6 T) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature, plus some for the pan
1 T sugar
1 t minced garlic
1/2 t finely grated lemon zest
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 c plus 2 T all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1 t salt
1 c crème fraîche, at room temperature
2 oz grated parmesan cheese, about 1 c packed
Preheat the oven to 350° and generously butter a 9″ ovenproof skillet or cakepan. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder and set aside.
Snap the woody ends off of the asparagus and cut the spears into 1-2″ lengths. (If they are very thick — an inch or more — cut the stalks in half lengthwise first.) Put the asparagus into the prepared pan, fitting as much as you can into a single layer.
With an electric mixer (use the paddle if you have a stand mixer), cream the butter on medium-high speed with the sugar, garlic, lemon zest, and pepper until it is very pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing very well after each addition and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Add one third of the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just combined. Add half of the crème frâiche, again mixing only until combined. Repeat this process, adding another third of the dry followed by the remaining crème frâiche and finishing with the dry. Fold in the parmesan. Don’t over mix.
Spread the batter over the asparagus in the prepared pan and bake for 25-35 minutes, until the surface springs back when touched lightly and a toothpick or tip of a paring knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let the cake cool just slightly in the pan and then invert onto a platter. Serve warm (best) or at room temperature (fine).