Mercury Poisoning (featuring Almond Cake with Rhubarb and Cardamom)

I pull on the pair of dilapidated work jeans I bought ten years ago– the ones that used to be loose.  I run my fingers through my hair, feeling the wiry sprouts of grey in my overgrown roots.  I find an old sweatshirt– the threadbare one with The Cat in the Hat grinning widely over my chest, and slide it on top of my faded wife beater t-shirt.  Today isn’t about glamour.  Today is about moving four cubic yards of soil from the front of our house where it was delivered to the flower beds Francis built in the backyard.  This is a good job for me right now- mindless exertion.  Today I will lose myself in my physical tenacity.  I will feel my muscles scream, and my joints squeak, but my perception of powerlessness over the state of the world and my under-employment will fade away.

Get this from here to there.  Grunt.  Release.  Howl.  Exhale.

As my body moves, my mind dances through my brain’s passageways and discovers parcels– unpacking in no particular order.

I think of my first job in Portland that I booked a few months after moving here.  How I drove home that night, giddy from one of the most successful gigs of my life, and realized that I didn’t have to use the GPS to find my way back.  It had finally become second nature to me.  I knew where home was.  And then I opened the door to find my husband, dog, and cat waiting for me and I bored them senseless with my triumphant catering stories.

Then I think of yesterday morning when I sent reminders to two clients that hadn’t yet chosen menus for parties that were quickly approaching.  A brunch and a cocktail party.  Both suddenly canceled.  Well, not canceled but postponed — waiting for a better time. “A better time.”  Yeah, we’re all waiting for a better time.

Which leads me to think of the POTUS Orangeutan and I’m so scared and rageful that I carry twice the load in half the time.  My shovel forcefully dives into the mound of dirt with a scrapey swoosh; my biceps are flexing, glutes pulsating, fingernails brown with earth– we shall overcome.

The soil slips into the finger jointed corners of our cedar boxes, and I suddenly feel overpowered by optimism.  I will sow life into these boxes.  In tidy rows, I will cultivate enthusiastic seedlings.  Tomatoes and beans and lettuces and basils and peppers and peas and, and, and…  They don’t know about war; they don’t care about unemployment.  They need things I can give them—water and fertilizer and attention.  I can do this, even though I’ve had only moderate success as a gardener in the past.  I look at this bed of opportunity and I know I can help something grow and change.  I feel no impotence.   I feel empowerment.  This small plat is the entire world for a few minutes.

More than a couple friends have mentioned Mercury’s retrograde which is occurring from April 9th to May 3rd.  This year’s retrograde feels particularly cataclysmic– like I’m having full-blown mercury poisoning.  I’m between a rock and a hard place about assigning planetary blame to a slow month in catering, but it feels better than beating myself up.  The sourness I feel is more than just my light work load.   Most people I talk to are experiencing the same sensation.  Come on, May 3rd!

I top the last shovelful of earth into the planter bed and rub aching my lower back.  It’s small, this sanguine patch of time, because soon I will be staring at my computer to figure out how to work the SEO on Google or bid on Thumbtack jobs that will never come to fruition, but I am altered now.  I am refreshed.  I am connected a little deeper to the small delicious stuff of life.

Maybe I’ll splurge on one more task.  Something bright and springish.  How’s about an almond cake with rhubarb and cardamom?  Yeah, that’s just the thing.  I think I’ll call it Optimism Cake.

Almond Cake with

Rhubarb and Cardamom

Serves 8-10, depending on your slice size


  • 1 ½ pounds rhubarb stalks, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons sugar plus ¾ cup sugar, separated
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup blanched almonds
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • Powdered sugar to decorate


  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour, tapping out excess.
  2. Take one of the stalks of rhubarb and slice it into quarters lengthwise and then into 2-inch sticks.  Reserve for later.
  3. Slice rhubarb in half lengthwise (quarter if very large) and cut into ½” pieces.  Place into a large bowl and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of sugar.  Let rhubarb sit in the sugar (some juice will come out which is perfect) while you prepare the cake batter.
  4. Pulse flour, almonds, baking powder, and salt in a food processor until almonds are finely ground (texture should be sandy).  Add the cardamom and cinnamon and pulse for a second.
  5. Place 1 cup butter and ¾ cup sugar into a mixer bowl and beat with the paddle until it becomes light and fluffy.  Scrape the seeds from vanilla bean and add them to the butter-sugar; reserve pod for another use. Continue to beat until very fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating to blend first egg before adding the other.  Add almond extract and vanilla extract.  Beat until mixture is pale and fluffy, another 4 minutes.
  6. Reduce speed to low and gradually add dry ingredients and the yogurt, switching between the two.   Beat, scraping down the sides of bowl as needed, just to combine (batter will be very thick).
  7. Scrape batter into the rhubarb and fold until thoroughly incorporated.  Smooth batter and arrange long reserved sticks of rhubarb over top; sprinkle with almond slivers.
  8. Place tart pan on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake, rotating once, until cake is golden brown and rhubarb on top is soft and beginning to brown, 70–80 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cake cool before removing from pan.
  9. Sprinkle with sugar and feel optimistic immediately.


Here’s me on Afternoon Live on KATU making it!


15 thoughts on “Mercury Poisoning (featuring Almond Cake with Rhubarb and Cardamom)”

  • a few things:
    I love, love, love that you’re doing these TV spots – an opportunity to bring together a variety of your talents!
    this cake is right up my alley. I love anything almond AND overcame my imagined dislike of rhubarb (based-on-nothing-but-its-name-and-the-fact-that-it-look-like-red-celery) the first time I tasted a strawberry rhubarb pie made by our friend Joanna Laggan Fox. Now I’m a total convert and will try this asap.
    Rhubarb’s all over the farmers markets here, as are strawberries (don’t be too jealous!).
    missing you!

    • Judy!
      How fantastic to hear from you! I too was a little wary of rhubarb until a few years ago (Jojo might have had something to do with my learning to love it, too).
      This cake is so worth it and also, as I learned when I brought the batter I prepared on the show home, can be made into very yummy rhubarb almond muffins (bake 50 minutes).
      I’m thrilled you’re following along in my hilarious adventures.
      I miss you too!

  • Enough with hibernating, hunkering down, and waiting it out; I think we all need to make “better times” happen for ourselves, now. Almond cake with rhubarb sounds like it would be a great start!

  • Love this. Once again – thanks for the inspiration. We’re going to plant cole vegetables this weekend – whatever the weather. And we’re going to try that beautiful cake – whatever the POTUS. Love you.

    • Thanks mom. It’s still too chilly here to plant anything in our boxes outside, but we’ve started a few things in boxes inside. Soon though… and then who knows what will start to grow?

  • Love reading your posts and miss living down the street from you and your family (I know, 30 years ago, right?). Hope you feel better. Your TV spots are awesome, things can’t be so bad when your childhood friends are turning into celebrities. Here’s to the end of the slowdown, and the rebirth of fancy catered parties as resistance to the the POTUS Orangeutan.

    • Ross!
      What a nice surprise to hear from you! Good old friends keep us grounded, I think. It’s great to think of the days back on 89th street and then look at pics of your beautiful family and know things worked out so well. I’m feeling better already.
      Thanks for posting!
      xo Alison

  • I am a city girl, born and raised within sight of the NYC skyline, however, there is nothing that soothes the soul or energizes like growing stuff to eat! Now that may be my Italian genes talking, but still… so, yay for gardening! I have a rhubarb plant that grows of its own volition, I adore almonds but cardamon, is it really important in this recipe? Remember, April is tax month and when people realize what they are writing a check for it can lead some to rethink a catered event. Hopefully you collect half the price, as a non-refundable deposit, in advance. You are an awesome chef so believe in yourself, explore the various formats of advertising, and enjoy the wonderful life you have been blessed with. Big hugs!

    • Bonnie,
      The cardamom isn’t required at all, but it’s also not a featured flavor in this cake. Rhubarb and cardamom have supportive qualities, which is why they’re often paired together. They bring out the best in each other. But the cake will still be incredibly yummy without it.
      Thanks for the support!

  • all due respect – anything with rhubarb turns me off so unlikely to try this recipe – HOWEVER – we have planted cilantro and lettuces and soon tomatoes – it is still too cool at night to do my herbs in pots on my patio BUT the rosemary and thyme survived the winter and are doing well – I am so in my element this time of the year and through the summer and fall when I get tired and dirty out in the garden – better cooking soon when the herbs and fresh vegetables (either from my garden or from the local farm markets) are available – damn the mercury retrograde – better times ahead – CHEERS to May 4th

    • Bobbi,
      I know that you don’t bake often and I suspected you weren’t fond of rhubarb (I’m beginning to know what you like and don’t from your comments), so I knew you wouldn’t be rushing to make this!
      It’s still too cold here to plant anything outside but we’ve got some things started in pots inside and will be moving things to the big beds soon enough. I can’t wait!
      Better times ahead indeed.
      Thanks for your loyal readership!

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