Vicki’s Grandmother’s Rhubarb Cake

“You can make anything you want. Just make sure that it gets eaten,” said Jerri when I volunteered to take over most of the cooking after my retirement. Though I have been forced into surreptitious trips to the compost heap on a handful of occasions, most of the time it has been fairly easy to share the output of our kitchen with others.

The most challenging recipes are ones for desserts, since neither Jerri nor I needs the extra calories or carbohydrates in a good pie or cake. And a dessert sitting on the table or in the refrigerator is a temptation we find hard to resist. Our motto should be, “If it is there, it should be eaten.”

Thus, what some of our friends and neighbors might imagine to be generosity is often prompted by my need to clear the kitchen to make room for the next recipe. I truly appreciate people who will accept a plate of cookies, a couple slices of pie or pieces of cake. They are contributing to a less combative household and making it easier for us to step on the bathroom scale in the morning.

However, sometimes people reciprocate when I drop off something. Just a few days ago, when I delivered pieces of Pumpkin Crack to our friends Vicki and Alan, Vicki met me at the door with a plate of rhubarb cake. I love rhubarb cake, and hers was delicious. Even better, it didn’t taste as rich as the crack, so the exchange may have been in our favor.

When I asked Vicki for her recipe, she said she would email it and told me that it was her grandmother’s. I asked for a little history, and she obliged. Here is Vicki’s account of her grandmother’s rhubarb cake.

“Rhubarb Cake Recipe (a recipe from Vicki Burgess George’s mother Wilma Larson 1910-2007 and her mother before her, Emma Retrum 1883-1967)

“My mom was a great baker but she usually made simple things. Well…not always. She did make putzy things too such as krumkake and rosettes for holidays and the weekly loaves of homemade bread and cake doughnuts.  The latter were fried in pure LARD!  She was “trained” to cook and bake by her Norwegian mother in the late teens and 20’s.  

“As a young farm housewife in the depression era, when money was scarce, my mom still baked weekly and cooked large meals for my dad, his brother, and mom’s parents who all lived with them on a farm in Maiden Rock, WI. Unfortunately, she didn’t train me her youngest child as well as her mother trained her.  I think this was because when I was growing up, she worked a full time factory job outside the home which was not the norm in the 50’s.

“Notice that she assumes I already know how to cream sugar and butter, etc (see her direction “mix as you would for a cake”).  I make this recipe with the buttermilk instead of the orange juice.  Anyway, this is a simple recipe using mom’s homegrown rhubarb.

“Now I make it using rhubarb from a plant originally from Alan’s grandparents’ farm in northeastern Wisconsin that he has successfully transplanted four times!  He has moved it from his parents’ home in South Milwaukee, to parsonages in both Grantsburg and New Richmond, Wisconsin, and now to our home on the Willow River.  

“I know he uses only aged horse manure to fertilize the rhubarb.  He says chicken manure is too stinky and the aged horse manure works.

Enjoy (the cake…not the manure)!”

The recipe is very similar to “Nellie’s Rhubarb Cake which I shared with readers earlier this summer. Vicki’s grandmother’s recipe uses butter and buttermilk instead of shortening and sour milk, and it omits the salt. The salt in the butter and buttermilk eliminates the need for extra salt, and the two ingredients do make a subtle difference in the flavor of this cake.

I have kept the instructions as Vicki’s mother gave them to her. As Vicki noted, they assume that you know how to make a cake. More complete directions are in the notes.


1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk (or orange juice)
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups rhubarb (cut small)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon


Here are Vicki’s grandmother’s directions. “Mix first seven ingredients as you would for a cake.  Stir in rhubarb.  Pour batter into a greased/floured 9 x 13 cake pan.  Sprinkle one-half cup white sugar and one teaspoon cinnamon (mixed) on top of batter.  Bake at 350º for 40-50 minutes.”

NOTES: Clean and chop the rhubarb stalks into a quarter to half-inch dice. Grease and flour a nine by thirteen inch cake pan. Preheat the oven to 350º.

Cream the sugar and shortening. Use all-purpose flour. Put the flour and soda into a sifter and sift a half cup of flour into the creamed sugar. Stir it well with a wooden spoon. Beat the egg until it is lemon yellow and mix it with the milk. Pour about a third of the milk into the sugar and flour mixture and stir it until it is smooth. Stir in another half cup of flour, then another third cup of milk and beat the mixture until it is smooth. Repeat these steps, ending with the final half cup of flour and beat well.

Stir the vanilla and rhubarb into the batter and pour it into the pan.

Mix a teaspoon of cinnamon into a half cup of granulated sugar and use a teaspoon to sprinkle it evenly over the top of the batter.

Put the pan on a center shelf in the oven and bake for forty to fifty minutes. Test for doneness after forty minutes. A toothpick inserted near the middle of the cake should come out clean. If it does not, bake for another five minutes and test again.

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