To Impress a Boy: Rhubarb Polenta Cake

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

-The things we do to impress someone...-

The first time I did ecstasy I did it because a boy I liked gave me a tab of it. Being just recently twenty-one and, obviously, immortal in the sense that newly minted twenty-one year olds think they are I slipped it down my throat with a shot of whisky and thought how damn cool I must have looked, how effortlessly nonchalant I must have seemed, and that surely this boy would like me. I effused coolness as I nursed a neat glass of brown liquor – nursed it as if it were a dying patient as I had yet to actually develop a taste for whisky. It took every drop of willpower not to cringe from every sip as the booze burned my flesh lips to stomach.

But the boy seemed worth it. He was my height – that is to say six feet, give or take – with jet hair, full eyebrows, and eyes the color of robins’ eggs. He was a philosophy major, I think, or some degree that was largely inconsequential to the real world job market but that was cool to talk about on the quad with people who usually wore sandals all year regardless of season. He was cordial; the type of person you can’t help but be enamoured with for their compassionate demeanor. He wasn’t the smartest boy – he would eventually be kicked out of the university for failing too many classes and how one fails in philosophy is still a mystery; or is it? – but he was intelligent when it came to matters of finding a way to be happy with his life in that it seemed he had no regrets.

(This would prove untrue after his dismissal from the university.)

-His original major was biological chemistry. You can imagine how well that worked out.-

By the end of the night I realized I liked the ecstasy more than the boy who within the hour was tweaking harder than a computer tech and manwhoring himself out so hard I’d expect to find a hole in a bathroom stall proudly named after him.

Needless to say that jealousy had weaned me off him rather quickly, but the ecstacy helped quicker as I forgot all about him and gleefully melted into the bass pounding out two story tall speaker sets mounted around the dance floor like thumping obelisks.

Later, at the bar, I met another nice boy with whom I floated off the ground with. He got me safely home (nothing happened) and he would eventually become a good friend for the next many years until contact dwindled after he moved away to attend law school at Harvard after scoring an impressive and near-legendary perfect LSAT score.

-He was another crush later, but totally not boyfriend material on account of the ego the size of his pecs, which were awesome.-

I spent the next day collapsed on the couch in a lugubrious heap with my arms shackled in so many now-deceased glow bracelets and chugging a gallon of red Gatorade that my new friend had given me (he was right that I would need it).

I told him later about why I had been there and done the drug to begin with. He said he understood and that what I went through was a rite of gay passage.

"Of course," he said, "it's a fucking stupid one. But a few years from now you'll realize it was an experience worth living." Years later, I can say he was right. Everyone should try it at least once.

Was it foolish to do a drug for a boy? Absolutely. Insanely so. But, then again, we all do things to impress someone we’re smitten with. Some of them rather brilliant and other times we throw down drugs with copious amounts of alcohol. C’est la vie.

There is one feat we do out of infatuation that we all regret doing and that we're all guilty of. An act we all come to regret...

Comforting our crush while he or she is in a break-up, hoping they’ll understand that our compassion for them is a veil for something so much more intense. That's when you gently, so gently, place your hand on their shoulder they’ll put their hand over it before looking up at you. Then it’ll come... that spark of realization like the universe just came together before their eyes and they realize that you, YES YOU! are the one! You’ll embrace passionately. Kisses as tender as an egg yolk quivering in your hand. Dizzy with glee. The crush hops you on his moped (my fantasy, so shush it, he drives a moped) and you scoot down the street in eternal, undying bliss.

Or some bullshit that never works out before they go and date another idiot just like the last because, like the rest of us, we’re all kind of stupid like that.

-Like that plan has ever worked for anyone in the history of ever.-

We all remember it and it sucks to run through that emotional apocalypse.

There was the boy I went whitewater rafting with and where I suffered the sunburn that resulted in a full body peel of skin that I could have sewn a suit out of. The one in gymnastics club who I tried to impress with a standing pike – something I could not at all whatsoever do, let alone actually ever tried – and almost killed myself for. I spent the next few days with a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my ass, making sitting through two hour seminars a true pain in the butt.

Then there was that cute Asian boy in fencing club whom I almost killed because nothing says I fancy you like a thorough ass kicking and inflicting a wound that needed four stitches. It was the equivalent of pulling a girl's ponytail on the playground, only with a hospital visit and swords.

With fiancĂ© there wasn’t ever a need to impress, really. A few tricks here and there, the kinds of things we all do like whip up a classy meal or dress as sharp and comely as the gentleman prey in a Jane Austen novel. We had been friends for about 10 years before we started dating so by then he kind of new past all my tricks and knew just me for me. I didn’t have to jump through any hoops as he had seen me jump them for others. He had had my cooking, knew my faults, my ego, and understood my addiction to historical dramas and my need to have both summer and winter sheet sets for the bed. He knew the real me so no mask or painted smile was ever worn. He knew the actual me – not the one I has presented to other hopeful callers in the past.

He was – by all confounding evidence to me – already impressed.

Still, it’s good to have a new hat to throw on to re-dazzle the one you’re smitten with now and again. For example, this simple cornmeal cake. This is a recipe from the waxing poetic cook and author Nigel Slater, whose floral prose brings about this: my second most favorite cake of all time (my first being a brown sugar cake). The cake is simple to make and presses together quickly. The texture is sweet, aromatic, and the large grain polenta gives it an engagingly gritty texture. The inside is filled with baked rhubarb, but any roasted fruit from apples to boysenberries would be lovely.

If you feel like gaining the attention of your boy, girl, partner, whomever you seem to be chasing at the moment I encourage this cake. It'll do the job and then some. It's swoon inducing and first kiss encouraging.

Just the the thing to impress...

Rhubarb Polenta Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Ripe

1 pound rhubarb, chopped into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons water
3/4 cup coarse polenta
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
dash of ground cinnamon
zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup brown sugar
10 tablespoons butter, cold and diced
1 egg
2-4 tablespoons whole milk
a few dashes of your favorite bitters
sugar for sprinkling

1. Lightly butter an 8-inch spring-form pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350F. Place the rhubarb, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the water in the baking dish and toss. Bake for thirty minutes, and then place the rhubarb in a mesh colander to drain; reserve the juices to serve with the cake.

2. Put the polenta, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, orange zest, brown sugar, and remaining sugar in a food processor and blitz a few times. Add the butter and blitz a few more times until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Mix the egg, bitters, and 2 tablespoons of the milk into a bowl and blend into the mixture with the food processor. Take care not to overmix. The mixture should be sticky and soft. If it isn't add another tablespoon of milk.

3. Press two thirds of the dough into the cake pan and push it 1/4-inch up the sides. (You'll probably need to flour your fingers a bit to keep it from sticking from you.) Be sure there are no cracks or holes. Place the rhubarb over the surface. Crumble the remaining dough over the top. Scatter a bit more sugar over the top and bake for 45-50 minutes. Allow to cool a few minutes, and serve with the juices from the rhubarb.


  1. Loved this post! So true on the crazy things we do to impress boys and this dish look delic.

  2. Love rhubarb so I'm definitely checking this one out. I really like the plate it's on too.

    I once dated an ecstacy dealer for a little over a year in my early 20s. I think I did enough for all those people who never tried it. :)

  3. Melissa: It is quite delicious!

    Sporkgasm: Dear lord, that sounds crazy. LOL

  4. I wish I could be enthusiastic about rhubarb, but despite trying it a few different ways, I still am not a fan. In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I (do not) admire and (do not) love rhubarb. In other words, please post the first most favorite cake. And thus you have been punished for daring to call my dear Mr. Darcy "prey".

  5. Michelle: Strawberries would work equally well here, as might almost any roasted fruit. And, bitch, Mr. Darcy is mine. *snap snap*

  6. I do so love finding something new to impress boyfriend with. Luckily, he's not one to cook so he can easily be impressed. I'll have to give this a whirl this weekend. I saw some gorgeous rhubarb (long stems, full leaves, the kind that bat their eyes at you and make you go week in the knees... you know the type) at the farmers market last weekend that will work quite nicely.

  7. LeeRB: Sounds like an excellent plan. Sexy rhubarb for a sexy cake.

  8. Favorite line, ..."only with a hospital visit and swords."

    Thanks for the laugh Garrett!

  9. Dan won't eat rhubarb, so I only have myself to impress.

    And YES to summer and winter sheet sets. We even have a jersey set for spring/fall.

    1. Dan obviously does not have his priorities set right.

  10. That looks divine, and I've been getting rhubarb in my CSA bin.

    The keepers don't need to be impressed, it's true.

    Fortunately, the craziest thing I ever took to impress a boy was Alli. Which...didn't turn out very well, but at least it's legal. (On the other hand, I don't think "anal leakage" is a typical side-effect of ecstasy.)

    1. Alli? O.o
      ALso, I have never had a commentor write the words "anal leakage," so that's a first. ;)

  11. Great post! I had a whole pot of leftover polenta just last night - the kale and goat cheese salad that stirred into it was extremely tasty, but now I am wishing I saw this first :)

    I think I might try this with stewed cranberries, if only because the rhubarb isn't quite ready here yet.

    1. Sounds great with the strawberries. I think the cake will be awesomne that way.

  12. in my fantasy its a vespa to be more specific.

  13. My favorite line,due to it's depth and wisdom beyond your years was "because we are all kind of stupid like that." So true. So hard to learn! And yes, the stitches for your crush was funny too. It is a good thing you are more settled now, you got into alot of trouble.
    You don't have to impress people NOW. You are impressive. As is. Isn't it nice to grow up?

    1. Oh, I still get into trouble. It's just of a different sort.

  14. Michelle Ann: It's funny because he did need stiches. ;)

  15. OK, I've read the recipe five times now, and I still don't see where the dashes of bitters are used. If the ingredient list is chronological it would be toward the end. I know I'm invisible (because no one apparently has a crush on me, and anyone I have a crush on doesn't know I'm alive [that was not a cry for help, merely a statement of fact]), but am I blind as well?!

    Totally making this this weekend, bitters or no. Thanks, Garrett!

    1. I think you just need to give someone a reason to visit a hospital. As for the bitters, my bad. Add them with the milk and egg. I'll make a note in the recipe ASAP. :)

  16. awesome post dude. mom told me to read it , it was awesome. - Brandon.

    1. Good to know my mom thinks I'm cool (and that she now knows I did drugs, oof).

  17. Great post. Not only am I pining for this rhubarb but I'm not recalling things I did for a boy that I will have to write about as well. Funny how we always end up with the ones that show us how easy it is supposed to be.

  18. Garrett: I just love reading your posts. Because you are so totally in love. Because you are so totally truthful. Because you make such interesting dishes (though I am still not a rhubarb fan) Because though I am not a rhubarb fan, I would bake this for my husband who is. Because you make the whole argument against gay marriage seem so ridiculous...and you nearly always make me laugh ... or cry.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind and heartfelt response, MK. It's the kind of thing that gives me the push to keep writing.

      I hope you love this cake, and, you know, between us you can always use strawberries for this so you can indulge while you proclaim for your hubby that it's all for him. ;)

  19. Bloody hilarious. Thanks! You have no idea how much I needed a great laugh. And your concoctions never cease to inspire!! :)

  20. I just made this today and it is ridiculously delicious! The rest of the rhubarb I bought is infusing with vodka as I type.

  21. Always looking for new things to do with rhubarb - and polenta! Thanks for this wonderful summer treat :)

  22. I wasn't expecting a blog post about polenta cake to start with, 'the first time I did ecstacy...' but I loved the story, thanks for sharing. Emotional apocalypse is a great way to put it.


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