Dancing Tomatoes

From the minute I had the first bite of this cake, on a farm in the hills of Montana, I was in love. There was the setting, of course, which was a an old-fashioned, light-filled kitchen on the farm of Aili and Bill Takala, who had raised animals and grains in those Montana hills since arriving from Finland decades before.  It was the post-sauna hunger, the walk through the snow, the big pot of coffee on the table, the lovely company of Aili who had cooked for generations of family and friends, and the dry chuckle of Bill whose face was weathered from working in the outdoors.

Amazing Flavor

But it was also the amazing flavor and texture of this cake.  It manages to be simultaneously sweet and tart, because the cake is dotted with cubes of rhubarb that sparkle in the mouth!  I didn’t know then that Finland and its bakers are responsible for so many delicious cakes that we think are American, but my first lesson was with Aili.  She baked as easily as I roll out of bed in the morning, and our subsequent evening there included a dozen cookie varieties with sauna coffee and yes, more of the rhubarb cake.

Is it American?

So while I always think of this cake as American, is it?  Sami, our amazing producer at Dancing Toamtoes, is from Finaland and he has a retinue of gorgeous cakes that issue from his kitchen and are what I’d call “American style”. 

Emigration and Recipes

Finns emigrated to the US in large numbers between 1870 and 1930 as they hearkened to the clarion call of open land almost free for the taking which segued into with the “Russification” of Finland which caused many more  to relocate.  They brought their skills, their traditions and yes, their recipes with them.  This cake was just one; I’m guessing from the cakes that Sami makes, and those I’ve had from other kitchens in the U.S., that we cake lovers owe a lot to the Finnish baker.

Memory Pocket

Recipes reside in the pocket of memory that makes us happy, makes us feel at home even when we’re far away. Aili acknowledged this as she gave me this cake recipe.  This was a favorite of hers for all those reasons and, as she very clearly said in her heavily accented English, “eet ees so goot.”

And you will surely agree.

Rhubarb Cake

*If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, simply add 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup (250ml) milk and let it sit for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keyword: cinnamon, coconut, rhubarb, vanilla sugar


  • 2 cups;500g diced fresh rhubarb (from about 3 large stalks; ¼-inch;.65cm dice)
  • 1-1/2 cups;300g vanilla sugar
  • 8 tablespoons;125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (300g) cups plus 2 tablespoons (300g) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup;250ml buttermilk*
  • ½ cup;60g unsweetened coconut


  • Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Butter and flour a 7 x 12-inch (17.5 x 30cm) glass baking dish.
  • Place the rhubarb and ¼ cup (50g) of the sugar in a bowl and mix. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, mix the butter with the remaining 1-1/4 cup (250g) until pale yellow and light. Add the egg and the vanilla and mix well.
  • Sift the flour, baking soda, the cinnamon, and the salt together onto a piece of parchment paper.
  • Add the dry ingredients in thirds to the butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Fold in the rhubarb mixture, and then the coconut. Spoon the batter, which will be fairly thick, into the prepared baking dish.
  • Bake until the cake is golden and puffed, and springs back when pressed gently, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a wire rack to cool. When the cake is cool, serve.

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