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Spoonriver Cookbook's Rhubarb Cake: Example of love in the kitchen

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When you're on the phone with Brenda Langton, owner of Spoonriver restaurant in Minneapolis, you can hear the smile in her voice; you can sense the sparkle in her eyes and feel the passion in her words.

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I talked to Langton two days after the season opener of the Mill City Farmers Market, which she started in 2006. The lively urban market spreads out in an open area between the Guthrie Theater and Spoonriver overlooking the Mississippi River in the Mill District of Minneapolis. Local, sustainable and organic produce is offered along with pasture-raised meats, eggs and farmstead cheeses every Saturday during the growing season. It's one of my favorite stops when I'm in the Twin Cities on a summer weekend. "There were 5,000 people at the market on Saturday," Langton said. She was thrilled.

Langton said she was a 15-year-old little hippie when she started working at a cooperative restaurant in her St. Paul neighborhood and began learning about plant-based proteins and the relationship of good food to good health. That first job as a teen-ager ignited a spark within Langton that has become a burning passion to educate people about eating good food for good health.

From the first restaurant the fearless Langton opened in 1978, Cafe Kardamena, which was renamed Cafe Brenda (1986-2009), to Spoonriver (2006 to present) and the Mill City Farmers Market (2006 to present), she has served fresh, healthful food using as many local, seasonal ingredients as possible.

Now, with her recently published "The Spoonriver Cookbook," she wants to get people into their own kitchens to create dishes that promote eating well, feeling well and living well.

"People can't eat out all the time and stay healthy," said Langton. "I want this book to inspire people to get into the kitchen and cook."

Langton intentionally chose simple recipes for the book and stayed away from unusual ingredients. "The recipes in the book help home cooks make recipes that work so they can feel proud of what they created."

I told Langton I made the recipe for Lentil Barley Vegetable Soup from the cookbook. "Oh, lentils and barley go together like corn and beans," she said. "It's a perfect combination." The soup is a meatless one-pot meal and took just an hour to make.

As I paged through "The Spoonriver Cookbook" perusing recipes and stopping to read short stories about farmers and vendors from the Mill City Farmers Market, I thought the section on grains, beans and vegetables was my favorite, marking recipes for Maple-Gingered Red Beans and Jasmine Rice and Quinoa Pilaf. But then I came to the entrees. How about Broiled Char with Orange Miso Glaze or Walleye with Sesame Crust and Ginger Orange Teriyaki? And just wait until you get to the desserts. As soon as I saw the recipe for Mango Cake with an author's note that said rhubarb could be substituted for mango, I pulled out my cake pan and started chopping fresh rhubarb that I had just received from a friend.

Sweetened with honey, which Langton says gives good flavor and works to preserve the cake, and studded with chunks of tart rhubarb, the cake is a moist, seasonal dessert. Slather it with your favorite cream cheese frosting, top it with a scoop of ice cream or just dust it with powdered sugar.

As Langton likes to say, "Plan, give a little love in the kitchen and the results are tremendous." Rhubarb Cake is proof.

Rhubarb Cake

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup honey

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 cups chopped rhubarb

1/2 cup chopped nuts or unsweetened shredded coconut (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans or one 13 x 9-inch pan.

Cream the butter; then add the honey and continue beating until well mixed. Beat in the eggs, vanilla and yogurt.

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and allspice in a separate bowl. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until well blended. Add the rhubarb and the nuts or coconut (if using), and stir just until incorporated.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared pans and smooth the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The cake is done when a cake tester comes out clean or the top springs back when you lightly press it. Cakes made in a single large pan will take longer to bake. If you are making a layer cake, cool the cake in the pans for about 10 minutes; then invert and remove the pans. Cool the cake completely before frosting it. Serves 10 to 12.

Recipe from "The Spoonriver Cookbook," by Brenda Langton and Margaret Stuart. University of Minnesota Press. 2012.

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