Rhubarb is easy-peasy to grow and makes divine desserts, from a classic fool to a crunchy crumble or that Sunday staple, a rhubarb and custard tart
Rhubarb may be one of the most generous plants one can grow. The first rhubarb in the shops is the early season forced rhubarb — rhubarb that’s been grown with a cloche covering it to protect it from the cold and hurry it along. The result is gorgeously tender, pale-pink stalks of rhubarb.
Rhubarb that hasn’t been covered is also delicious and will keep shooting pinky-red stalks to summer’s end.
When picking rhubarb, to ensure it continues to grow well, pull each stalk from the very base, rather than cutting it. Cut off the top of the harvested stalks from the leaves right down to where there’s any green. Trim the bases of the stalks if they’re muddy.
Rhubarb — technically a vegetable but treated more like a fruit in the kitchen — works a treat in jams, jellies, cakes, crumbles, curds, tarts and puddings.
Poached rhubarb is wonderfully simple and enough of a dessert by itself, with perhaps some cream or yoghurt. It’s also fabulous with meringues or shortbread biscuits. To poach rhubarb, chop it and boil for one minute in a sugar syrup made with equal quantities sugar and water. Remove from the hob and let it cook for another 10 or so minutes in the residual heat. This is a good way to cook it because it doesn’t break up into a mush.
The sharpness of rhubarb means it can stray from sweet to savoury dishes and goes brilliantly with rich meats like duck, goose and even mackerel. To make a rhubarb sauce for meat, finely slice some rhubarb and cook in a saucepan with a few splashes of water for about 8 minutes until it starts to really soften, then add a little sugar to take the edge off. You’re aiming for a flavour that’s sweet and sour.
Rhubarb and custard is a classic foodie marriage. In the rhubarb and custard tart featured below, there’s a lovely gentle sweetness from the honey that I adore. If you’d rather not bake a pastry, then just make the filling and cook the custard with rhubarb in individual ramekins in a bain-marie in the preheated oven — they’ll only take about 18-20 minutes to cook.
Rhubarb crumble is another classic. The version below includes ground cinnamon which goes so well with rhubarb (ginger or finely grated orange zest also work well). For a deliciously simple, perfect dessert, try the rhubarb fool with cardamom and pistachio shortbread biscuits, right. Now that’s spring on a plate.
You will need:
250g rhubarb stalks (weight without the leaves)
125g caster sugar or granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
For the pistachio and cardamom shortbreads, you will need:
40g caster sugar
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
Pinch of salt
120g plain flour, plus a little extra for dusting the worktop and the dough
2 tablespoons chopped pistachios
1 Trim the ends of the rhubarb stalks and cut them into 1cm chunks. Place the chunks in a saucepan with the caster sugar or granulated sugar, whichever you’re using, and the water. Stir gently, cover with a lid and bring to the boil over a low-to-medium heat. Then simmer until the rhubarb is completely tender.
2 Now stir the rhubarb until it dissolves into a mush, tip it into a bowl and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, put the cream in a bowl and whip it to form soft peaks. Fold the softly whipped cream into the rhubarb you set aside earlier to make a fool. Transfer the fool into a large serving bowl or individual glasses or bowls.
3 To make the pistachio and cardamom shortbreads, put the butter in a bowl and cream until soft. Add the caster sugar, the ground cardamom and the pinch of salt and cream the mixture again. Add the plain flour, stirring well to make a dough.
4 Line a baking tray with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 180C (160 fan), 350F, Gas 4.
5 Dust your worktop with some flour and place the dough on top, dusting it with flour too. Roll the dough, regularly sliding a palette knife or similar under the dough to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Keep rolling until the dough is approximately 4mm thick, then cut it into fingers and place them on the prepared baking tray. Sprinkle the fingers with some of the chopped pistachios. Work the leftover scraps of dough together and roll to make more fingers, then scatter these with the remaining chopped pistachios. Put the tray in a fridge or freezer for 5 minutes to chill the dough before baking. Bake the fingers in the preheated oven for approximately 6-9 minutes until they are a light golden brown.
6 Remove the tray from the oven and allow the shortbread fingers to sit on the tray to set for a few minutes before carefully removing them to a cooling rack.
7 Serve the rhubarb fool with a couple of pistachio and cardamom shortbreads on the side for each person. Delicious.
Any left over poached rhubarb can be liquidised, then divided between glasses and topped up with a little sparkling wine to make rhubarb Bellinis.
You will need:
200g plain flour, plus extra for rolling out the pastry
1 tablespoon icing sugar
100g butter, diced
½ to 1 egg, beaten
For the filling, you will need:
4 egg yolks
4 generous tablespoons honey
225g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced in 2cm lengths
1 You will also need a 23cm-diameter, loose-bottomed tart tin. If you are making the pastry by hand, sift the plain flour and the icing sugar into a bowl and rub in the diced butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add half of the beaten egg and, using your hands, bring the dough together, adding a little more of the beaten egg if it is too dry to come together.
2 If you are making the pastry in a food processor, sift in the plain flour and the icing sugar and add the diced butter. Whizz for a few seconds, then add half the beaten egg and continue to whizz for just a few more seconds until it comes together, adding the remaining beaten egg if necessary. Don’t over-process the pastry or it will be tough and heavy. If there’s any remaining beaten egg, keep it for brushing over the pastry.
3 Press the pastry into a round, just over 1cm thick, using your hands to flatten it. Cover the pastry and place in the fridge to chill for about 30 minutes.
4 Preheat the oven to 180C (160 fan), 350F, Gas 4.
5 Take the pastry out of the fridge. Use a rolling pin to roll it, dusting the worktop and the top of the pastry, as you do so, until the rolled-out pastry is 3mm thick. Make sure to keep it in a round shape and large enough to line the base and sides of the tin.
6 Using the rolling pin to help you lift the pastry, place it in the tart tin — there’s no need to flour or grease the tin. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin, and use your thumb to ‘cut’ the pastry along the edge of the tin for a neat finish. If there are any holes or gaps in the pastry, patch them up with some of the spare pieces of dough leftover from the trimming process.
7 Chill the pastry in the fridge for 15 minutes or in the freezer for 5 minutes.
8 Remove the pastry from the fridge or freezer and line it with parchment paper — see my Top Tip, below — leaving enough paper to come up over the sides. Fill the lined tart case with baking beans or dried pulses (you can reuse these many times). Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes or until the pastry feels just dry to the touch on the base.
9 Remove the paper and beans, brush the pastry with a little of the remaining beaten egg and return the pastry to the oven for 3 minutes. Again, if there are any little holes or cracks in the pastry, patch them up with any leftover raw pastry so that the filling doesn’t leak out during cooking. Once the pastry has been baked blind, take it out of the oven and set it aside in the tin while you make the filling. Leave the oven on.
10 To make the custard filling, whisk the egg yolks with the honey and add the cream and mix well. Arrange the rhubarb slices in the blind-baked pastry case you set aside earlier, then pour all of the custard in a thin drizzle all over the rhubarb. Transfer the tart carefully to the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until the custard is just set in the centre. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack before taking out of the tin and serving.
11 To take the tart out of the tin, once it’s cool, sit the tin carefully on a small bowl so that the sides of the tin fall down. Use a palette knife to carefully slide the tart off the tin base into a serving plate. If you wish, you can keep the tart on the base of the tin.
When cooking a pastry case I like to scrunch up the parchment paper into a ball before stretching it out again and laying it in the pastry shell — this makes the parchment paper more pliable and prevents sharp folds from cutting into the pastry while it’s blind baking.
You will need:
600g trimmed rhubarb, cut in 2cm chunks
3 tablespoons light brown sugar or caster sugar
For the crumble, you will need:
150g plain flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
75g butter, cubed
25g porridge oats
75g light brown sugar
To serve, you will need:
Custard, ice cream or softly whipped cream
1 You will also need a 1-litre pie dish or six ramekins. Preheat the oven to 180C (160 fan), 350F, Gas 4.
2 Put the rhubarb chunks and the light brown sugar or caster sugar, whichever you’re using, in a saucepan over a low heat, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until the rhubarb is just softened.
3 Taste and add more sugar if necessary — the amount of sugar you need will depend on the rhubarb and on your taste. Transfer the rhubarb to a pie dish or individual ramekins, whichever you are using, and allow to cool.
4 Next, make the crumble. Put the plain flour and the ground cinnamon in a mixing bowl, add the cubed butter and, using your fingertips, rub it in until the mixture resembles very coarse breadcrumbs — don’t rub it in too much or the crumble will not be crunchy. Add the porridge oats and the light brown sugar and mix to combine.
5 Sprinkle this crumble mixture over the cooled rhubarb and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes if you are making small crumbles in the ramekins or 30-45 minutes if you are making a large crumble (in a pie dish) until bubbling and golden.
6 Serve warm with custard, ice-cream or softly whipped cream.