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The Ultimate New Zealand Dish and Rhubarb Cake

July 10, 2010 · 29 comments

in Baking,Sweets

People in the various countries where I have lived have often asked me what constitutes a classic example of New Zealand cooking and though I have a very strong idea of what New Zealand cooking means to me, I find it difficult to articulate in a single phrase, which I think perhaps is a good thing, a sign of the complexity of our food culture.

There are the old favourites that we share with Britain of course: fish and chips, roast meals and baking and also the style of cooking we have in common with the Islands – steaming meat and vegetables for a crowd on hot rocks in the ground – the Maori hangi or Pacific Island umu.

My own cooking is informed by my Japanese background and my time overseas as well as the British dishes of my nana but I cannot think of any of my friends whose cooking, or at least eating, like mine, is not also passing conversant with Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, who hasn’t eaten sweet kumara or gnawed meat from a bone steamed in a hangi, boiled some pasta or eaten beans and rice.

sliced rhubarb

I know I recently posted about my Japanese grandfather but I just made rhubarb cake, and when I think of rhubarb, I think of my poppa. He was a curious mix of traditional and forward thinking; he supported his only daughter in her wish to go to university and then fly to Japan to study further in a time when young women were rarely encouraged to think further than home and hearth but he was happiest in that most New Zealand male of institutions, tinkering in the back shed. He was gregarious and social, perfect for his job as a publican but he loved solitude and spent hours reading. He loved New Zealand; he frequently pronounced Stanmore Bay, where he lived until recently with my nana “the most beautiful place in the world” but he considered himself, in many ways, Irish, like his mother though he was born and raised in New Zealand.

lemon scented sugar

This notion that England, or Ireland or Scotland or Wales is “Home” (and I use the capital advisedly) is not at all prevalent now as it was in his generation of Pakehas and the burgeoning sense Kiwis of all extractions now have of Aotearoa-New Zealand as a unique and dynamic young country is what makes it special. Many of the countries I have travelled to have a long and turbulent history but have also had their time in the sun – sometimes the sense of that time being over is palpable and has become part of the national psyche, while for me, the feeling I get from the culture in New Zealand is that the best is yet to come.

This is reflected strongly in the food culture – there are few places with so fresh and varied a food scene. While there is beauty in being strongly rooted in one’s local food culture like the Italians – who in general, still only ever eat Italian food at home – to me the greater excitement is to be found in the availability of produce that originates from all around the world but is grown in New Zealand soil or a technique from an old world country, enthusiastically embraced with New Zealand ingredients or tools, one example being that of our fledgling boutique cheese industry.

creamed butter and sugar

In my memory, nana and poppa’s garden was huge and sprawling with plum trees at each end, lemon trees dotted in between and an aged and soot-dusted banana tree next to the environmentally suspect bin he used for burning rubbish. The lawn was quite steeply pitched and therefore perfect for roly-polying down or riding a stuffed orange dog down to the bottom, if such a thing took one’s fancy. While one of the garden beds was dedicated to nana’s flowers, the other grew a messy profusion of acid free tomatoes, silverbeet and rhubarb which nana would stew to go with our breakfast cereal, only the first course in what was invariably a two course affair, with bacon and eggs or mince on toast to follow.

The ultimate New Zealand dish to me is a chameleon thing: united only perhaps in that it be eaten somewhere outdoors. Whether it be cooked on a barbeque, in the ground, on a camping stove or prepared in a kitchen, enjoying food lovingly prepared overlooking the sea or the forest or just the back yard is what makes me the happiest. Take onigiri, or barbequed shrimp, a perfectly ripened Puhoi cheese or a piece of this moist rhubarb cake, but give it to me in the fresh air and I guarantee you’ll raise a smile.

rhubarb and yoghurt cake

What is the food culture where you come from like?

The chef, restauranteur and television personality Rick Stein will visit New Zealand in August as part of his Food Odyssey and this post has a chance to appear on the programme, wish me luck, my lovelies!

Rhubarb, Yoghurt and Pinenut Cake

While I’ve made quite a few rhubarb cakes this spring, including a rhubarb and polenta one, I pinched the base of this one from the gorgeous Debra of Smith Bites. I have, however, taken rather a liberal interpretation as is my wont; I’ve increased the amount of lemon zest, reduced the amount of sugar, swapped the walnuts for pinenuts because that’s what I had, doubled the amount of yoghurt because I didn’t want to waste the rest and omitted the topping.

Zest of 2 lemons

620 grams (2 3/4 cups) sugar

115 grams (1 stick) softened butter

1 teaspoon vanilla (or not, if like me you have vanilla scented sugar)

250 ml (1 cup) yoghurt

500 grams (4 cups) flour

3 eggs

4 teaspoons baking powder

A pinch of salt (or not, if you use salted butter)

4 cups of rhubarb, chopped into 1 cm pieces

50 grams (4 tablespoons) pinenuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 170 celsius (340 fahrenheit).

Add lemon zest to sugar and rub together with your fingers until the sugar is redolent of the lemon.

Cream the butter and lemony sugar until light.

Beat in eggs, vanilla if using, and yoghurt.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt (if using) into the wet mixture in two additions.

Fold in the rhubarb and nuts.

Spread batter in 2 loaf tins and bake for an hour or until a skewer inserted just comes out clean.

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Magic of Spice July 10, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Looks very good, and the photos are great:)

Katie@Cozydelicious July 10, 2010 at 11:16 pm

I love how you describe New Zealand food culture as being as much about where the food is eaten (outside) that what it is. Having never been there this makes quite an impression! Here in Boston many food cultures mingle, but the one key is seafood. New England is all about the coast and clams, lobster, cod and swordfish are staples.

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Oh STOP! I miss seafood here in landlocked Austria enough as it is, I feel a tear coming on ;P That sounds so good…

Alessandra July 11, 2010 at 10:06 am

Good Luck Sasa :-) the cake looks fantastic!

Kitchen Butterfly July 11, 2010 at 11:25 pm

I’d say the food culture in Nigeria is changing (though I live in the Netherlands at the moment). People are become more health conscious but also a lot more sophisticated. So parties now begin with small chops aka starters on a scale and with such a selection that one is amazed. The Netherlands too (my little corner, in and around The Hague) is definitely seeing a change too in the last 3 years. Traditionally, the Dutch have never been known as ‘foodies’. They used to just eat to live but a lot’s changed in the last few years. There’ve been loads of foodie events, markets and all sorts of amazing new shops opening up. This rhubarb cake looks delish, though I’d gladly give up the pinenuts for some almonds!

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Interesting, I know nothing about the food cultures of either of those countries, I’m glad I asked the question ^^

Alli July 12, 2010 at 1:21 am

beautifully written post Sasa and the cake looks scrummy, well done!

catty July 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Aww that is a SCHWEEEET post about your poppa and nana! And Rick Stein (GOOD LUCK!) hehe… I know it’s hard to articulate what is traditional when you’re from that end of the world.. but a rhubarb cake is just as good as any. If you go on Rick Stein, tell him that’s NZ’s national cake :)

Big Boys Oven July 12, 2010 at 5:50 pm

wow this is an interesting recipe! I think I will love this rhubarb cake! a dessert with a hint of sourness! ;0

SMITH BITES July 12, 2010 at 6:25 pm

LOVE this version – you’ve outdone yourself here! Next summer when my rhubarb is back, I’ll be making this one for sure!!

Maria July 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I love how moist this cake looks, and I have always loved rhubarb dishes! I’m doing my best here in Sydney to mix my food culture (Finnish) with my other half’s (German/Japanese)! :)

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm

I’m really interested in Scandinavian food culture since I saw a beautifully photographed book about it (name escapes me now)…Must be hard getting ingredients in Sydney…?

tasteofbeirut July 12, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I am fascinated by the richness of this food culture you are describing; the only thing I know about New Zealand is that it is a most beautiful country; also one of our cousins lives there with his wife and kids. Not much, I know; love to learn more and your background is so interesting!
PS That cake has a crumb similar to pound cake that I love; have yet to taste rhubarb!

Nikki July 13, 2010 at 1:47 am

Knowing that I’m only back in Aotearoa for a short time, I’m eating as much ‘kiwi fare’ as I can – kumera chips with aioli, good sushi (so hard to find in Northern Ireland), and roast lamb, not to mention the unhealthy things like Whittakers peanut slab. And of course while I was away I missed those fantastically fresh fruit and veges so much, straight from the soil to the farmers market. In March I was interested to discover that I’ve developed a taste for feijoa, heady and perfumed. I remember hating them when we first arrived in New Zealand back when I was 11, which was a shame because there were (and are) two trees in my parents’ garden. Somehow the love has blossomed, and I even froze a few cupfuls of the pulp to use at the end of their short but abundant season. So at the moment, for me at least, the ultimate New Zealand taste is feijoa loaf, toasted and buttered with good old Anchor butter. Its good to be home!

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Peanut slabs and feijoas…Mmmm. I’m a fan of feijoas on Facebook ;P

Vanessa July 13, 2010 at 7:43 am

Your photos are so beautiful and inspiring. You come from such a rich background of food and I love all the different influences I see here. This cake looks and sounds wonderful; yoghurt cakes are a favourite of mine since I discovered them in France some years ago. My food culture is mixed I guess; some British, some French, some German plus a little Italian. I’d like to get more into Scandinavian cuisine though.

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Thanks Vanessa! I just said above I’m interested in Scandinavian too – fascinating unexplored territory…

amber July 13, 2010 at 10:23 am

Good luck, Sasa! The NZ food scene reminds me a lot of the Australian scene – so fresh, inclusive, and exciting! I think, in 20 years time or so, when Australian producers have unlocked the ancient secrets of artisinal bread-making, cheese-making, charcuterie etc. and these products are more readily available to consumers, we will have the best of both worlds.
I love rhubarb. Must bookmark this recipe.

diva July 13, 2010 at 11:01 am

what a moving post, somehow I totally agree with you on feeling stumped when people ask so what’s the food culture like of your country? For Singapore it’s so bloody complex because people of all races and nationalities live together it’s one big mash-up where you can find the most authentic Indian, Malay, Italian, British, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese (even Russian) etc. in just different corners of Singapore (u need to know where to find em). And one’s food background really depends on not just the places you’ve lived or come in contact with but those of your friends and family too..besides, the more we eat the more we know and love it don’t we. Greedy pigs that we are. What a beautiful cake. I love rhubarb and this looks like a very elegant addition to any tea party. x

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I’ve never been to Singapore (want to but always end up in Japan when I go to Asia) but had a bit of a taste of the cultural mash-up in Malaysia – twas cool seeing all that stuff under one roof in markets in KL ^^ Can’t wait to visit in Singapore, and that’s a threat ;P

Claire July 13, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Hi Sasa! I love the new domain, especially the size of the photos! Thanks for the new way to use up rhubarb- have got plenty of it in the garden! Good luck with Mr Stein :)

Sasa July 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm

@ Claire @Amber @Joumana @Debra @Alli @Catty @BigBoysOven @MagicofSpice @Alessandra Thanks for the luck! My recipe is so general compared to what Alessandra and Alli have done though, using really Kiwi ingredients like Kawa Kawa and feijoa but it was fun to write anyway ^^

Justin Orde July 14, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Another great recipe to stave off the HANGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR :)

Liam O'Malley July 14, 2010 at 8:40 pm

When I think of New Zealand I think of the Conchords. There’s Vikings there, right? ;-)

It’s so cool you have such an interesting and diverse heritage. There is so much to pull from there.

I have always grown up in the Washington DC area so I’m not really sure what people attribute to it. Certainly, there’s the blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay, but that might be about it. My heritage is Irish German, so there’s lots of drinking, potatoes, and pickled cabbage.

Kaitlin July 16, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Great post! The cake sounds really tasty, too.

I live in the US, so I feel like we have the hot dog/hamburger/fried chicken/apple pie thing here, but I’ve never really subscribed to it. I’ve been expose to so many styles of cooking in my life that it just doesn’t really work for me. I mean, sure, it is “classic” and it is common, but for me, when I crave a home-cooked meal, I want Mexican food. We eat a lot of Mexican food.

And my family is mostly Irish ;)

Jessica July 23, 2010 at 7:43 am

The cake looks amazing, but isn’t the rhubarb pieces excruciatingly sour? Although, perhaps the redder rhubarb is a bit sweeter, here (in South Africa) the only rhubarb I can find is green with a little tinge of red if I’m lucky (and it requires a small boatload of sugar!).

Edible Planet July 27, 2010 at 5:39 am

I love your description of the Kiwi food culture scene – great post. I found you through the Rick Stein competition. Our rhubarb is just starting to come away again after it’s winter hammering so might have to add this recipe to my otherwise far too small collection of rhubarb recipes to use it up when it goes crazy later on. :)
Fiona S

Su October 2, 2010 at 10:52 pm

even after a decade of european life my mother never cooked anything except for korean dishes. she used to be very busy, so not to have the time to learn a new cuisine was her excuse :) happily, we had a german day nanny who was an excellent cook and who made all typical german dishes (schnitzel, strudel, pflaumenkuchen, kartoffelbrei,… these gets more and more rare among young people), so culinarily i am completely home in both cultures.

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