coffee cake

Last weekend gave me other blessings beyond rest—things like roasted garlic hummus (twice! plus some roasted red pepper!) and a new cake plate I bought at the local antique store and, as a real surprise, an hour-long conversation with strangers who felt like old friends at a brunch in Eagle River Sunday.

Also, the morning that we left, just before Bailey and I walked through the forest one last time, I knelt by the same thick and leafy rhubarb plants that had provided the base for the crumble I made here recently, the one I ate with vanilla ice cream, after my parents brought back a bag of rhubarb Memorial Day weekend. I snipped a few dozen stalks, firm and strong, mostly green with flecks of pink at the bases, pulling away their leaves and arranging them in a white plastic bag.


rhubarb plants


As it turned out, the fruit was exactly what I needed to make this rhubarb coffee cake, or, now that I’ve eaten most of it, let’s just say THE rhubarb coffee cake. It’s honestly maybe the best I’ve had, so the definite article seems appropriate—beyond that, my mind gets all fuzzy and my tongue gets tied, and I’m all “mmm” and “wow,” scooping big crumbs from my plate.

chopped rhubarb

This fairly simple recipe yields a moist and flavorful coffee cake with basically three components: the sweet cake, the tart rhubarb and the thick layer of crumbs. Yet the sum makes something so much greater than the parts. If you ask me, it’s the crumbs—big, chunky pieces made of sugars, spices, butter and flour—that will have you reaching for piece after piece.

chopped rhubarb

rhubarb coffee cake

coffee cake

slice of coffee cake

By the way, if you want further endorsement, I’ll add that I gave this to three people, one of whom was hesitant, one who isn’t sure she likes rhubarb (“It’s green?”) and one who, after tasting a bite of someone else’s, asked me to cut a very, very large slice because “this is the best thing you’ve made—a 10.” I might have to agree.

Big-Crumb Rhubarb Coffee Cake (or, The One That Exceeds All Others)

Adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen and The New York Times, June 2007

Two notes about the ingredients: 1) You’ll see this recipe calls for cake flour, which is exactly what I started using when making the crumbs, but when I ran out, I switched to all-purpose, and the combination worked beautifully, so feel free to improvise. 2) The original recipe calls for half a pound of rhubarb to chop, so if you’re buying it in the store and wondering how much to buy, there’s a number. I just went with what I had from the garden, which worked out to be pretty close.

Butter for greasing pan

For the rhubarb filling:
1 1/3 cups chopped rhubarb
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

For the crumbs:
1/3 cup dark brown sugar (I used light)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, melted
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:
1/3 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan, and set it aside.

Make the filling: Slice rhubarb into 1/2-inch-thick pieces and toss in a bowl with sugar, cornstarch and ginger. Set aside.

Make the crumbs: Whisk sugars, spices and salt in a large bowl, and then add flour with a spatula or a wooden spoon. Cut in the butter. It will start to look like a crumbly mixture that you can press together into a solid dough. Push it all into the bottom of the bowl, and leave it pressed. Set aside.

Make the cake: First, combine the wet ingredients (sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla) in a small bowl. Then, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of the sour cream mixture, and mix on medium speed until flour is a little moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add the rest of the sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula.

Scoop out about half of the batter* into the prepared pan. Spoon rhubarb over the batter. Dollop the rest of the batter over the rhubarb—don’t worry about it being even.

Next, add the crumbs. Using your fingers, break the dough-like mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. It’s not that they need to be exactly the same size, but that is just an idea to aim for so that they’ll be large crumbs. Sprinkle them over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter (it might be moist from rhubarb), about an hour**. Cool completely before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

*The original instructions say to scoop out half a cup of batter and set it aside to dollop later. I, however, didn’t read the instructions correctly and did things differently. I gave you directions the way I did it because, honestly, this coffee cake was so good, I will always do it exactly this way in the future.

**It may be my oven, but after I set the timer for 45 minutes, I kept checking it for at least another 15, maybe longer, before the toothpick came out clean and the top started to brown.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 43 Comments

  1. Cate

    I am going to make this as soon as I possibly can! Any time I get my hands on rhubarb, I always just make simple rhubarb sauce (rhubarb, water, and sugar) and end up eating it all by the spoonful. It’s really time I branched out!

  2. Lan

    oh how i can actually say that i like rhubarb now! :) it’s all about presentation and preparation. sigh. this cake looks divine, something to nibble on with my AM coffee, reading delicious food blogs and avoiding work.

  3. rachel

    MMM MMM. I Could use some right now…

  4. Hannah

    This sounds amazing, I love crumb topping.

  5. Kate

    MMM I made this the weekend after Smitten posted it and you and she are both SO RIGHT. It really is a tasty tasty coffee cake :) YUM!

  6. Kim

    Looks delish. I always wonder…if I have a stand mixer without a paddle attachment (it’s my grandmother’s old Sunbeam mixer), which attachment do I use? It has standard beaters and sort of “swirly beaters” (I’ve never known exactly what they’re for), but no paddle.

  7. Shannalee

    Cate – I have been looking for the perfect way to showcase rhubarb for a long time, and this more than met my expectations. Try it. You’ll love it!

    Lan – YAY! A victory! So proud of you for conquering your rhubarb anxiety!

    Rachel – Mmmm is right.

    Hannah – And this crumb topping is as good as it gets.

    Kate – I know. When she said it was the coffee cake of her dreams, I was in, and I’m so glad now!

    Kim – Great question. OK, first of all, the swirly beaters sound like the dough hook (sort of looks like this?). The standard beaters are probably what I’m referring to as paddle because, after all, a handmixer (with its twin beaters) would also work fine. Does that help?

  8. Kim

    Yes, that helps. The swirly beaters aren’t dough hooks, but the standard beaters are twin beaters as you would see on a handmixer. Thanks!

  9. The Duo Dishes

    Your crumb topping looks so good! Of course we love cake, but a good crumb topping is the winner.

  10. Kasey

    Isn’t this cake AMAZING?! I made it a few weeks (months?) ago for a brunch potluck at my house. It was literally devoured–hot from the oven–in minutes.

  11. Kathi D

    I don’t know if I like rhubarb (haven’t had any since a friend’s mom made it a million years ago) but I totally trust you, so I’m going to try it.

  12. Shannalee

    Kim – I’m dying to know more about those swirly sticks. If you find a photo online like them, let me know!

    DD – Exactly!

    Kasey – YES! I’m so glad you feel the same way.

    Kathi D – You’re sweet. If I were going to describe just the taste of rhubarb, I’d say it’s very, very tart, which is why it’s usually combined with so much sugar and other things in recipes and also why it works so well in a coffee cake like this one, where the flavors balance so well. I hope you do try this, and please let me know what you think, OK?

  13. ingrid

    Darn I wish I had been able to find rhubarb before the season ended. Sounds so good!

  14. Sue

    You just made my day! Seriously, Jordan just brought in a pile of rhubarb today for me to do something with. I can’t WAIT to try this! The question is, can I wait until tomorrow? Hmm…

  15. Kim

    My mom tells me they are dough hooks…they just aren’t so “hooky.” Basically, picture a dough hook, but the hook part is connected (kind of in a loop) to the rest of it.

  16. jessiev

    you know, EVERY single recipe i’ve tried from you has worked, beautifully. yet this one? you’re right, it looks like the best yet. prob bc of the ginger, too?! i can’t wait to make it. might have to raid the neighbor’s rhubarb patch again. thank you!!

  17. Shannalee

    Oh, Ingrid, is it really too late around you? You should still try this recipe, but with a different fruit—whatever’s in season!

    Sue, Happy to help! I hope you guys love it!

    Kim, How crazy, right? I wonder if it still works like a normal dough hook. I see vintage mixers in antique stores all the time and always want to try buying one and using it.

    Jessie – What a nice compliment! It makes me so happy to know the recipes here have worked out for you! Try this one, and let me know what you think!

  18. mary

    This sounds and looks lovely. I have a bunch of blueberries in my fridge. I might try this cake with blueberries instead of rhubarb.

    very nice blog.

  19. redmenace

    OK. I need to know. Doesn’t the rhubarb need to be pink? I have lots of green stemmed rhubarb, but I thought I couldn’t use it yet?!!!

  20. E.P.

    YUM! I know I say this whenever I comment on your blog, but I will definitely have to give this a try. I have never had rhubarb before, so it’ll be interesting! What does it taste like?

  21. Shannalee

    Mary – Blueberries would be great! And thanks for the compliment!

    Redmenace – I always thought that, too. Actually, there are lots of different varieties of rhubarb (, and, in my case, the green was good. When I was researching this a few days ago, I found conflicting sources on whether green or red is sweeter, so I’m so unsure about that, but mine was tart, tart, tart!

    E.P. – You’re sweet. Definitely make this the thing to try! If you go with rhubarb, expect something tart that complements all the sweet stuff. But, like Mary suggests above, other fruits will work! Good luck!

  22. Kim

    I’m not totally sure…I’m sure it works like a normal dough hook (or pair of dough hooks). I’ve never tried, but now that I know their purpose (and that they’re not “swirly things” I’ll have to try!


    I’m getting so that I can look at a recipe and know if I’ll like it, what it will taste like, what it will smell like. That is THE coffee cake.

  24. Elizabeth

    Shannalee, this looks so heavenly!

  25. Shannalee

    Kim – Definitely!

    Angela – I love that you can know if you’ll like a recipe, and I love that this is one you will.

    Elizabeth – Thank you!

  26. jessiev

    we made this today and JUST snuck a bite- couldn’t wait an hour for it to cool! you’re SO RIGHT – this is the best coffeecake i’ve ever eaten. next time i might add a little cardamom, which i love. THANK YOU! this is a keeper!

  27. Shannalee

    Yay! So glad you liked it. (PS – cardamom would be lovely!)

  28. Kathi D

    I have been foiled in my attempt to make this, because none of my stores have rhubarb!! Is there anything I could use instead that would approximate it?

  29. Shannalee

    Kathi – Sure! Try some other fruit instead, whatever is in season and looks good. Mary above said she’d try blueberries, which I think sounds wonderful!

  30. lise

    I’ve been on a coffee cake bender lately (stupid idea in this heat but…) and I’ve tried about four others I’ve found on blogs, and this is the best one yet. Good ratio of crumb to cake (a lot of other recipes are like 90% cake). Good stuff, thanks for posting!

  31. Lenox Ave

    I’ve never tasted rhubarb before and I LOVE coffee cake. Not as much as ice cream, but close. Yummy!

  32. Shannalee

    Lise, Heat or not, stupid ideas usually don’t relate to eating coffee cake, at least in my book! So glad you liked this one!

    Lenox, This one gives ice cream a run for its money. Try it!

  33. Kathryn

    This recipe is perfect for me! I was in Wisconsin earlier this month and picked about 10 cups of rhubarb at my parents’ house, where it grows like a weed. I brought the rhubarb back to VA (it costs like $4 a pound here) and my boyfriend LOVES coffee cake. Thanks so much for sharing!

  34. Shannalee

    Kathryn – Looks like we have several things in common: passion for fresh produce and trips to Wisconsin. Make this cake, and I have a feeling we’ll add one more to the list! Thanks for stopping by!

  35. James

    Great stuff. Perfect recipe for this time of year. Thanks.

  36. Ely

    Lovely, but just two things
    * in the crumbs method you don’t mention to add the melted butter! I almost forgot it
    * I really thought there would be coffee in the cake with the title. Coffee? Rhubarb? Two of my favourite things in one cake? But I’m guessing you mean to have a cup of coffee with your cake? Or…. just maybe I should sneak some coffee in there somewhere what do you think?

  37. Shannalee

    Ely, Good call about the butter in the crumbs. I don’t know how I missed that, but I will go add it straightaway. And as far as the coffee – ha! :) Someone else said the same thing, so I guess that’s a common perception. I had always thought of coffee cake as something you, like you said, eat with coffee. I think that’s what the original recipe called it too. That said, feel free to rebrand it with your own name!

  38. Lise

    Yeah, coffee cake is a cake eaten with coffee and doesn’t have coffee flavoring in it :) I always associate it with US East Coast Italian bakeries.

    Anyway, still coming back here for the recipe (I guess I should write it down, and not just bookmark it 😉 ) regularly. I’ve tried it with blueberries (meh), currants (fantastic! hard to find fresh though), apples (bland, not too tart I guess) and cherries (very good) as well. Not all at once of course 😉

  39. Lise

    Oh, and almost forgot! : wonderful blog; keep up the good writing and beautiful photos. I’m always inspired to copy a recipe and fiddle with it whenever I catch up on reading the blog.

  40. Shannalee

    Lise, Thanks so much for the feedback and for the kind comments on the blog. I love that you’ve made this cake with so many variations! Currants sound really fantastic – great idea!

  41. porkbierbelly

    I’ve been wanting to use up some rhubarb sauce I made couple weeks ago and came across your recipe. this looks like it’d be perfect to use it in that but I am wondering how much sauce you added as the filling. If you had to guess on cups or ounces, can you share with me how much is required for the filling? Thanks!

    1. Shannalee

      Hi Porkbierbelly – Unfortunately I am going to be little help here because I honestly don’t remember. Sorry! If you do some experimenting, I’d love to hear how it goes!

  42. Carrie

    Just made this and it turned out great! I substituted plain greek yogurt for the sour cream and it tastes great!

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