Rhubarb Honey Cake Recipe

A few weeks ago, with only a quick phone call as warning, I inherited an orphaned “package” of honeybees. A friend of mine needed a good home for them before leaving the state.

I hadn’t planned on keeping any bees this year. Last summer, being the third wettest in Alaska history, my entire beehive abandoned ship mid-summer, hopefully for drier and warmer climes. But, here I am again with a busy and active hive. I am currently feeding sugar-water to my honeybees until there is enough natural nectar to keep them going. Soon they will begin to feed on pussy willows that grow along stream banks, dandelions, Dutch clover, berries, flowering trees, and wildflowers.

Beekeeping is an active hobby – and a profession for some – in Alaska. And, we should be proud that we produce some of the world’s best honey.  Our pesticide and herbicide-free and fireweed-dense fields make light-colored sweet honey that is well respected in the world of honey connoisseurs.  In my yard, I have to keep a small electric fence around the hive because bears seem to have amazing respect for electricity.

In cooking with honey, I just substitute honey for sugar cup-for-cup in most recipes. Honey is sweeter than sugar but for the most part it’s an easy exchange. Reduce any liquid in your recipe by 1/4 cup for every cup of honey used because, of course, honey contains more liquid than sugar.

A tip in measuring and pouring honey is to spray your measuring cup with a little bit of cooking spray and the honey will easily glide out.

Alaska honey has a mild and clean flavor. The lighter a honey is usually the milder and more delicate the flavor. Lighter honey is also considered to be purer. Alaska honey is best used in cakes, dressings, and spread over fresh-baked morning breakfast breads. Save that dark honey we can all buy for more utilitarian purposes.

Store honey at room temperature. It can crystallize if it gets too cold (I struggle with this sometimes in the winter). Honey never goes bad or gets too old. It’s one ingredient that never has to be tossed from the cupboard. If your honey crystallizes, just warm it in a water bath or microwave it for a few minutes, stirring once or twice.

The following recipe is inspired by our first crop of rhubarb ready to harvest. One minute there was snow on the ground and the next a flourishing patch of rhubarb. Quick to follow, we have made our first rhubarb honey cake of the season.

Rhubarb Honey Cake
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8
Mandy, our pastry chef, prefers using vanilla paste in desserts rather than extract. The brand we use is Nielsen-Massey. This recipe is closely adapted from the Ad Hoc At Home cookbook by Thomas Keller. Ad Hoc is a restaurant in Yountville, California where Mandy used to work.
For the pan schmear:
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 ½ tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon dark rum (optional)
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or vanilla paste if you have it)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound rhubarb, washed and cut into 1-inch slices
  • 1 pint strawberries, cleaned and sliced
For the cake:
  • 1⅓ cups cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or vanilla paste if you have it)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, combine the butter, honey, rum, brown sugar, and vanilla and beat until smooth and well blended. Spread ⅓ cup of the schmear over the bottom of a 9-inch nonstick cake pan. Sprinkle lightly with the salt.
  3. Beginning from the outside of the pan, make an overlapping row of rhubarb. Make a second row inside the first one, overlapping the slices of strawberry, in the opposite direction, working toward the center of the pan.
  4. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Set this aside.
  5. Put the butter, sugar, and the honey in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and mix on low speed to combine, then beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until the mixture is light and creamy, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary. Mix in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until the first one is incorporated before adding the second and scraping down the sides as necessary. Beat in the milk. Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, beating until combined.
  6. Pour the batter into the pan and spread it over the rhubarb and strawberry. Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the pan for even browning and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester or wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a cooling rack for 20 to 40 minutes.
  7. Run a knife around the edges of the cake, invert it onto a serving platter, and serve warm.