Strawberry-Rhubarb Coffee CakePhoto Credit : Mark Fleming
Plant a rhubarb patch in your garden, and witness nature’s capacity for second, third, and fourth acts. Winter hardy, drought resistant, and seemingly immune to the errant weed whacker, this humble vegetable-that-acts-like-a-fruit seems to bounce back from any affront. Yet for all its vigor, it cooks down to silken tenderness in pies, cobblers, and cakes.
This Strawberry-Rhubarb Coffee Cake recipe dates back nearly 40 years, to the kitchen of my grandmother Mary. The daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, she married a first-generation son from Emilia-Romagna and dutifully applied her kitchen talents to his heritage as much as hers. So it was her fried dough recipe—not my fully Italian nonni’s—that yielded the best frittelle on Saint Joseph’s Day.
But of all her standouts, there are two dishes I hold most dear, and the fact that they are both desserts probably says more about my predilections than it does her cooking. Her apple crisp, which we have published in these pages, remains my go-to dessert for fall dinner parties, for comfort, for a visceral memory of her. And then there’s her rhubarb bread, which is tender, sweet-tart, and moist (it’s made, midcentury-style, with vegetable oil instead of butter), with a crunchy sugar topping that always leaves me wanting more.
I still love that rhubarb recipe, but I longed to pretty up its brown-on-brown color palette and add more of that addictive topping. So I doubled the latter, and I added strawberries to both batter and topping for flavor and a pop of color. Switching the baking vessel from a loaf pan to a cake pan increased the surface area, making the results crunchier, not to mention prettier.