Simple, Not-Too-Sweet Rhubarb Coffee Cake

Simple, tasty, and ready to cut.

Simple, tasty, and ready to cut.

Every year just about this time, I cast about for some new thing to make out of rhubarb. This year, our good friend Ruth Thurston in Machias, unasked, sent along a recipe for Rhubarb Coffee Cake. Her daughter had visited, and they tinkered with a recipe Ruth had clipped years ago from a newspaper, substituting sour cream for buttermilk, and using white sugar instead of brown. Then, she wrote, “We halved it and baked it in a nine-by-nine pan.” They liked the result, she reported, and we all are the beneficiaries of their experiment.

I am using my rhubarb gradually. I discovered a while back that if I pick the blossoms off as they appear, and discard them or use them in a bouquet, I can keep the plant from dying off as early as it will if I allowed it to go to seed. So far this year, I have made two big batches of sorbet and set up some rhubarb in vodka to make a cordial. I’ll make rhubarb crisp at least once.

When it comes to baked goods, Ruth and I have similar tastes. This little cake is a good example: quick, easy, and just-right sweet. For fun, I added a little freshly grated nutmeg to the cake part. If you decide to make a half cake as Ruth reported that she and her daughter did, and as I did when I tried it, don’t worry about half an egg. Use the smallest one you have.

Rhubarb-studded batter spread in the pan, with streusel topping being sprinkled on top.

Rhubarb-studded batter spread in the pan, with streusel topping being sprinkled on top.

Rhubarb Coffee Cake with Streusel Topping


1 cup of sugar

½ cup of butter

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon soda

½ teaspoon nutmeg (optional)

2 cups rhubarb, diced


Streusel Topping

½ cup sugar

½ cup walnuts, chopped

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon butter, melted


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a nine-by-thirteen pan. Assemble the cake, cream together the sugar and the butter, beat in the egg and buttermilk. Whisk or sift together the flour, soda, and optional nutmeg, and add it to the sugar, butter, egg, buttermilk mixture. Mix all together completely, and then fold in the rhubarb. Spread in the baking pan.

Mix the topping by combining the sugar, walnuts, cinnamon, and melted butter, and distributing it over the top of the cake batter.

Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes. Serve warm.

Makes one nine-by-thirteen cake.

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.