The thought of rhubarb takes me back to my grandparents’ garden, a place that surely was dwarfed by the farms that were their former landscape back in North Dakota yet seemed to me the most amazing sort of wonderland. Some of my sweetest childhood memories are set in that garden, amidst the rows of raspberry bushes, rhododendrons, and of course a rhubarb plant that to any kid would likely seem almost prehistoric.
A love for rhubarb extends far beyond those of us with Nordic roots, but I’ll still always associate it with Norwegian rhubarb cake and rhubarb soup, Andreas Viestad’s bracing devil’s rhubarb (basically you stick a stalk of raw rhubarb in sugar and chase it with vodka), and Iceland’s hjónabandssaela, happy marriage cake.
I first tasted hjónabandssaela at a baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle a few years ago. While good, it lived up to the cake’s tendency to be a bit dry, the sort of thing you’ll be thankful to pair with coffee or perhaps a scoop of ice cream. I wanted to create a version of my own and set to work, utilizing the traditional components of rhubarb and oats but transforming them into the recipe I’m sharing with you today, one that’s just as hearty but with a texture I prefer. It’s a simple recipe, remarkably easy to make. After breaking down the oats slightly with a few whirls in a food processor, you incorporate the rest of the crust ingredients and then press it into a pan. No rolling, no perfection needed. The filling itself is simply rhubarb cooked down with sugar until it melts into itself, leaving little more texture than a trail of luscious silky strands behind. While you could omit the cardamom if you really wanted to, I love the aromatic warmth it lends to the dish, another reminder of both sets of my grandparents, whose homes were always as full of love as they were of food.
I used to keep an empty cardamom spice jar in my office. Opening the lid would release an olfactory nostalgia as the woody fragrance–as strong, complex, and sophisticated as my grandfather’s cologne–reached my nose. There’s something vintage, aged and almost mysterious about the spice, which conjures up memories of my grandparents because the scent mingles in my memory with the aromas that greeted me when I’d arrive at their house for dinner.
I’m living with the reality now that I’ll never see my grandparents again this side of heaven. Now, the ingredients and the foods that provide a gateway to the past are all the more precious to me. One of these days I’ll plant a garden in their honor, with berries and rhubarb, roses, and rhododendrons. In the meantime, though, I’ll keep making this dessert, thinking of them all every time.
Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)
A number of recipes call for quick oatmeal. I wanted to use whole rolled oats so took a cue from Sarah of The Sugar Hit and gave them a quick whirl in the food processor before adding the rest of the crust ingredients. Also, if you’re wondering about the dessert’s name, no one seems to know its origins, but the cake is well known and a traditional part of Icelandic baking.
1 pound rhubarb, sliced 1/2-inch thick (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole rolled oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks (salted) butter, softened and cut into a few pieces
Whipped cream, for serving
Start by making the jam. Combine rhubarb, sugar, and vanilla extract in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb releases its juices and breaks down considerably into a spreadable consistency, 20-30 minutes. (Some texture is okay.)
While the jam is cooking, start working on the crust. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a 10-inch cake or tart pan, ideally with a removable base.
Place oats in a food processor and give a few quick whirls to break them up slightly–holding the button down to the count of two a few times should do. Add flour, sugars, cardamom, and baking soda, and pulse again to mix. Add the butter and process some more, removing the lid and pushing down the butter into the rest of the dough a few times if necessary. Crack in the egg and mix just to combine.
Spoon about three-quarters of the dough into the prepared pan. Using your hands, press it evenly across the bottom and slightly up the sides, taking care to not let the bottom of the rim get too thick.
Spread the jam evenly across the crust. Use the rest of the dough as a topping, breaking it into clumps to scatter across the top.
Bake until the curst turns golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool in the pan, then serve with whipped cream.
Makes one 10-inch cake.