I adore seeing the first of the rhubarb leaves and the pretty pinky-red spears bravely pushing their way up out of the ground. It's always a sure sign that the bleakest bit of winter is behind us and that spring is well and truly underway.
The rhubarb that's been in the shops since Christmas is forced rhubarb. It is grown inside sheds, without daylight. This results in leaves more yellow than green, baby-pink stalks rather than crimson, and a more tender texture. Apparently the pickers avoid exposure to strong light, as it would lead to less tender rhubarb; they go as far as pulling stalks under torch light, sometimes even by candlelight!
Happily, there's no need for this unusual style of harvesting if you're growing rhubarb yourself. It is one of the easiest plants to grow, though to allow the plant to establish itself, you should make sure not to harvest any during its first year of growth.
When picking rhubarb, to ensure that many more stalks grow in the future, make sure to pull it from the very base. You want to see the tender white piece at the bottom of the stalk.
Rhubarb's natural flavour is impressively sharp. Much like the gooseberry, it really needs some sugar to become palatable. The sourness is then balanced, and the divine flavour of the rhubarb can really come through.
That sharpness means rhubarb loves dairy. Cream, milk, eggs and also vanilla are all very happy nestling into a recipe with tart, tangy rhubarb. But don't forget other flavours like ginger, orange and its favourite seasonal fruit: the strawberry.
Carrageen moss is a type of seaweed that works like gelatine, and in the recipe opposite, it gently sets the cooked milk to make a light and fluffy pudding. This recipe has been cooked at Ballymaloe House for decades and it pairs perfectly with some gently poached rhubarb.
Makes roughly 4 servings.
You will need:
200g (7oz) rhubarb, see my Tip, above
100ml (3½fl oz) water
100g (3½oz) sugar
Wash and trim the rhubarb into 1cm (less than ½ in) slices. To poach the rhubarb, combine the water and the sugar in a saucepan, stir, and bring to a boil. Then add the sliced rhubarb, cover, bring to the boil, and simmer for exactly 1 minute. Turn off the heat and leave the rhubarb in the covered saucepan until it is almost cool. Transfer to a bowl to finish cooling.
You will need:
7g (¼ oz) cleaned, well dried carrageen moss
850ml (1½pts) milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sugar
Softly whipped cream
Soft brown sugar
Soak the clean, dry carrageen moss in tepid water for 10 minutes. Strain off the water and put the carrageen moss into a saucepan with the milk and the vanilla extract. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently with the lid on for 20 minutes.
At that point and not before, separate the egg. Put the egg yolk into a bowl, add the sugar and whisk for a few seconds, then, through a strainer, pour in the milk and carrageen moss mixture on to the egg yolk and sugar mixture, whisking all the time. The carrageen moss mixture will be swollen and exuding jelly, so rub all this jelly through the strainer and into the bowl. Whisk the egg white stiffly and gently fold it into the egg yolk, sugar, milk and carrageen moss mixture in the bowl. It will rise to make a fluffy top. Serve chilled with the poached rhubarb (see previous recipe) and the softly whipped cream. Sprinkle the soft brown sugar on top.
For the meringues, you will need:
2 large egg whites
125g (4½oz) caster sugar
For the rhubarb and ginger fool, you will need:
175g (6oz) trimmed rhubarb, cut into 1cm (less than ½in) lengths
75g (3oz) caster sugar
1 teaspoon peeled and grated root ginger
25ml (1fl oz) water
125ml (4½fl oz) cream, softly whipped
Preheat the oven to 160°C, 325°F, Gas 3. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
Place the large egg whites in a large, spotlessly clean bowl, or in an electric food mixer, and whisk in the mixer, or using a hand-held electric beater, until the egg whites form soft peaks. With the machine still running, gradually pour in the caster sugar and keep whisking for about 5 minutes or until the meringue mixture forms stiff glossy peaks.
Spoon 4 large blobs of meringue, spaced well apart, on to the lined baking sheet. Using the back of your spoon, spread each blob into a round about 8cm (3in) in diameter, then use the spoon to make a well in the centre (in which the rhubarb fool will sit).
Place in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until they are crisp on the outside but still marshmallowy in the middle. To check that the meringues are done, carefully lift one off the baking parchment: if it comes away cleanly, it's ready. Remove the meringues from the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool. Don't worry if they crack a bit around the edges - it's part of their charm.
To make the rhubarb fool, put the trimmed rhubarb, the caster sugar and the grated root ginger in a saucepan with 25ml (1fl oz) water and cook, uncovered, on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes or until the rhubarb is stewed to a mush and the syrup is thick. Allow to cool, then fold the rhubarb mixture into the softly whipped whipped cream.
Place the meringues on a plate, spoon a lovely big dollop of the rhubarb and ginger fool over the top of each one and serve.
You will need:
450g (1lb) rhubarb, cut into 1cm (less than ½in) slices
150g (5oz) caster sugar
50g (2oz) butter, softened
12 slices of white bread, crusts removed
350ml (12fl oz) cream
350ml (12fl oz) milk
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Icing sugar, for dusting
Softly whipped cream, to serve
Scatter the sliced rhubarb in a 25cm (10in) square ovenproof dish or a similar-sized dish, and sprinkle over half (75g (2½ oz)) of the caster sugar. Toss together and then leave the rhubarb to sit for about 30 minutes to soften a little.
Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. Butter the slices of white bread and arrange four slices, butter side down, in the ovenproof dish. Scatter over half of the sliced rhubarb and top with four more slices of bread, again with the butter side down. Repeat with another layer of sliced rhubarb and another layer of buttered bread, then add a final layer of sliced rhubarb and finish with a layer of buttered bread, ensuring that the bread is placed with the buttered side down.
Put the cream and the milk in a saucepan and bring it just to the boil. While it is coming to the boil, in a bowl, whisk the eggs, the pinch of salt and the remaining 75g (2½ oz) of caster sugar. As you continue to whisk, pour the hot cream and milk mixture into the egg, salt and caster sugar mixture until it is well mixed. Pour this custard over the slices of bread in the dish and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Sprinkle the granulated sugar over the top.
Put the dish into a deep-sided baking tray and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the dish (this is known as a bain-marie). Put it in the oven to bake for 45-50 minutes or until it is just set in the centre. Remove it from the oven and serve with a light dusting of icing sugar and softly whipped cream.