This time of year used to be known as the hungry gap because of the dearth of fresh produce available in the garden. I’ve just lifted the last of my leeks and (now very fibrous) parsnips, and the purple-sprouting broccoli, which has been incredibly prolific this year, is going to flower faster than I can harvest and eat it. The asparagus is just showing, but won’t be ready for a week or so yet – especially if we don’t have any much-needed rain! But there’s one crop you can always rely on in an English garden in the springtime: good old rhubarb.
Both my early and late varieties are now in full swing, giving me ample pickings for pies and other desserts several times a week – and plenty to give away to family and friends too, of course. There are so many ways to ring the changes with rhubarb, other than the ubiquitous compotes, crumbles, pies and fools, and I make it a personal challenge to experiment with new recipes each season. I’ve been trying for some time to recreate the delicious Swiss rhubarb tart, or Rhabarberwähe, I tasted in Basel on my year abroad, so this year I finally tracked down some authentic Swiss recipes and experimented: result! By combining a couple of the recipes I unearthed (see here for the originals: Rhabarberwähe and again here – only in German, I’m afraid, I made a tart that closely resembled my Proustian memories. It’s not dissimilar to my favourite rhubarb shortbread recipe, but creamier, with added double cream, although one of the original recipes I found used quark – if you can lay your hands on the proper full-fat version, rather than its poor relative, the 0% fat offering which is often all that’s available in UK supermarkets. I imagine crème fraîche would work just as well. I used a shortcrust pastry tart case in my experiment as I had one lying around (as you do), but a sweet shortcrust pastry would be even better – and more authentic. I halved the recipe for my trial, but this is the full quantity – just halve everything for a smaller tart.
Swiss Rhubarb Tart – serves 6
5oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1oz caster sugar
2 tsp milk
2 1/2 oz butter
1/2 beaten egg
Generous 1lb rhubarb (5 or 6 stalks), trimmed and chopped into 1/2″ chunks
3 tbsp ground almonds
2 tbsp demerara sugar
2 eggs, beaten
150 ml double cream (or quark)
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp vanilla sugar
First, make your pastry case: sift flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Stir in sugar, egg and milk until evenly mixed, then work in butter (I find it easier if you grate it from cold) using fingers. Knead lightly to form a smooth dough, then chill in fridge for 30 mins. Do not leave too long, as it will set really hard and be impossible to roll!
When chilled, roll out on a floured surface (it will be very fragile, but can be patched if necessary!). Line a 9″ tart tin, then bake blind at 200°C/Gas 6 for 10 mins, then remove foil and beans and cook for another 5 mins until just set and golden.
For the filling: sprinkle the ground almonds over the base of the part-baked tart case, then scatter the rhubarb pieces on top and sprinkle with sugar. Return the tart to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the rhubarb starts to soften.
In a separate bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cream (or quark), vanilla sugar (you could just use caster here if that’s all you have) and vanilla extract, then pour over the part-baked rhubarb in the tart. Return the oven and bake for 20-25 mins until just set. Leave to cool and dust with icing sugar to serve – so good.
Another rhubarb-based pudding I discovered this year came originally from the BBC Good Food magazine calendar, often an excellent source of inspiration, if only as the pictures tantalise me every morning as I walk past! This is a posh take on a bread and butter pudding, and very comforting and delicious it is too. Again, I halved the ingredients and it still lasted several meals – warms up beautifully in the microwave too.
Rhubarb & Ricotta Brioche Pudding – serves 8
500g rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into 3cm pieces
150g caster sugar
300ml whole milk
300ml double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk (I just used 2 eggs when halving the mix)
250g brioche, thickly sliced
25g icing sugar
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
Heat 100 ml water in a small pan and add 50 g of the caster sugar. Bring to the boil, then add the rhubarb. Simmer for a couple of minutes, then lift out with a slotted spoon and arrange on a single layer on a tray or plate. Set aside to cool.
Put the milk and cream in a large pan and bring to the boil, than add the vanilla. Beat the eggs, extra yolk and remaining sugar in a large bowl, then pour over the warm cream and milk mixture. Set the oven to 160°C fan or Gas 4.
Slice the bread and butter, then spread the ricotta thickly on top of the buttered bread. Cut into triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the citrus zest, then layer the slices with the rhubarb in a large 20 x 30cm baking dish – a lasagne-type dish is perfect. Pour over the egg and cream mix and leave to stand for 30 minutes (this makes the end result lighter).
Place the dish in a large roasting tin and pour boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for 45-50 mins until puffy, set on top and golden. Remove from the oven, but leave to cool in the dish for about 10 minutes before serving.
Dust with icing sugar and serve with pouring cream or crème fraîche for a lusciously lovely spring treat.
My final variation on a rhubarb theme is an adaptation of a cake I usually make in September with my plum harvest: plum and almond cake, equally good as a dessert or a cake with tea. I do a different rhubarb upside-down cake, where the fruit is all piled on haphazardly, but this was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators’ group on Facebook, who posted a picture of a rectangular rhubarb tart with the rhubarb immaculately laid out in a chequerbord design. Very smart.
Rhubarb Lattice Cake – serves 8
9 1/2oz caster sugar
400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into equal 4cm lengths
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
Grated rind of one orange
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
2 tbsp milk
Grease and line an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin with baking parchment – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.
Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heat and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the rhubarb pieces on top in a neat lattice pattern. If you use a round tin, as I did, you’ll need to trim the outside pieces as you go to fit the tin.
Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients and orange zest, alternating with the milk and orange juice.
Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. Remove the parchemnt to serve.
Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way! You could also add chopped stem ginger and 1 tsp ground ginger instead of the cinnamon in the sponge, substituting 2 tbsp stem ginger syrup for the orange juice.