Orchids make me anxious. It’s not just the glamorous good looks, the frail stems, the supermodel attitude. It’s their habit of dropping dead. Or worse: near dead.
Happens all the time. I bring home some produce-aisle phalaenopsis; I admire its elegant blossoms, its tropical scent, its bored stare. Then watch the blooms shrivel and drop, never to return.
Eventually I gave up. Though one of my plants didn’t. Its limp leaves slumped across the pot, green and dejected. I think it kept up the last-gasp routine out of malice.
Years into this standoff, I noticed that my orchid’s sunny window wasn’t particularly sunny. I moved the plant and pointed out the garden, where rhubarb – all sturdy pink stems and poisonous green leaves – was bounding from the dirt.
Awakening the competitive spirit. Within weeks my orchid had sprung a nub, like a toddler’s first tooth. Soon it flaunted four downward-facing pre-roots and one upward-facing spike, which should grow into a stem. Which might swell into buds, which could unfold into flowers. Someday.
In the meantime, I’m baking rhubarb.
DOWN CAKEPrep: 20 minutes
Bake: 35 minutes
4 cups chopped rhubarb (from about 6 large stalks)
1⁄3 cup dark brown sugar
2⁄3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 cup flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (plus more for pan)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
∏ cup milk
1. Toss: Toss together rhubarb, brown sugar, 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon lemon zest.
2. Whisk: Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.
3. Beat: Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and remaining 1⁄3 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Slide in egg, remaining 1 teaspoon lemon zest and the vanilla extract; beat fluffy again. Scoop in one-third of the flour mixture; mix on low speed just to combine. Pour in half the milk; mix to combine. Repeat, working in remaining doses of flour, milk, flour.
4. Bake: Generously butter a 9-inch cake pan (not springform). Scrape in rhubarb and any juices. Scrape in cake batter; smooth top. Slide into a 350-degree oven and bake until golden and a toothpick poked in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan. Set a serving plate over pan and flip cake, fruit-side up, onto the plate. Nice slightly warm.
• Provenance: Inspired by Bon Appetit