TO my surprise, I saw my first pink, pencil-thick stalks of early rhubarb in some shops before Christmas.
I know that we had a mild winter, with all sorts of flowers in bloom ridiculously early, but rhubarb in December! I expect it now, in March – although in Yorkshire, the home of commercially grown forced rhubarb, it is available in February. Rhubarb is delicate, and utterly delicious. It is a seasonal culinary treat worth raving about. And there are so many delicious recipes to be made using it, varying from the rich and creamy, as in the cream pie recipe, to the refreshing and light sorbet, served with roasted sugar-brushed rhubarb. And the rhubarb and ginger wine syllabub falls somewhere between the two extremes.
As the rhubarb season progresses, stalks become thicker and lose their beautiful pale pink colour. But they still have a wonderful flavour, and the rhubarb can be cut into chunks and frozen, just as they are, in polythene bags, for use during the summer months. Rhubarb combines extremely well with strawberries, when their season starts, in mousses, or ice creams or sorbets.
Rhubarb sorbet with sugar roasted rhubarb
At this time of year, sliced blood oranges are a good substitute for the roast rhubarb.
For the sorbet
1lb/450g rhubarb, cut into chunks
1 pint/570ml cold water
8oz/225g granulated sugar
pared rind of 1 orange – well washed before paring off the rind, and avoid any bitter white pith; the best way to do this is by using a good potato peeler.
Measure the water and sugar into a saucepan and, over moderate heat, stir until every grain of sugar is dissolved. Add the pared orange rind, and bring to a fast, rolling boil. Boil fast for 3-4 minutes, then add the pieces of rhubarb to the hot syrup in the pan, bring the liquid back to the boil and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is very soft. Take the pan off the heat and cool the contents.
Then tip the contents into a food processor and whiz to a smooth purée, scrape into a solid polythene container and freeze. When half frozen, scrape the rhubarb mixture into a food processor and whiz till smooth. Freeze this, and, when frozen – this can be days rather than hours, but you may need to chip the iced rhubarb mixture – whiz it in the food processor again. Repeat this twice more – four times in total. With each whizzing the rhubarb sorbet increases in volume and becomes softer. After four whizzings, it is spoonable from the container in the freezer, with no need to remember to take it out of the freezer half an hour in advance.
It is delicious just as it is, but served with sugar glazed roasted rhubarb sticks it becomes special. You can only do this with thin, pink rhubarb.
For the roasted rhubarb
1lb/450g rhubarb, thin, pink stalks, trimmed either end and cut into lengths about 3in/8cm
4oz/110g granulated sugar dissolved in ¼ pint/140ml water, then boiled fast for 2-3 minutes.
Line a baking tray with a sheet of baking parchment. Put the lengths of pink rhubarb onto this. Brush each all over with the sugar syrup – it doesn’t matter if you do this while the syrup is still hot. Roast in a hot oven, 220C/450F/Gas Mark 7, for 10 minutes, check it, and put it back for a further 10 minutes. The rhubarb should be soft, and slightly caramelised on the outside. Cool on the parchment. To serve, put dollops of sorbet on each of 6 chilled plates and 2-3 lengths of roasted rhubarb beside each.
Rhubarb cream pie
For the pastry
5oz/140g butter, hard from the fridge cut into bits
6oz/170g plain flour
1 rounded tablespoon icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Put the above ingredients into a food processor and whiz till fine crumbs. Press this firmly over the base and up the sides of a flan dish about 9in/22cm diameter. Put this into the fridge for at least an hour, then bake straight from the fridge into a moderate oven, 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4, for 20 minutes, or until the pastry very slightly shrinks in from the sides. The sides will slip down towards the base, don’t worry, with a metal spoon scrape them back into place.
For the filling
1lb/450g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into lengths about 1in/2cm
½ pint/285ml single cream
1 large egg plus 3 large yolks
3oz/85g caster sugar
1 rounded tablespoon Demerara sugar
The rhubarb used for this should have thin, rather than thick, stalks.
Arrange the pieces of rhubarb over the base of the baked pastry. Beat the egg and yolks very well with the caster sugar, then beat the cream into the egg mixture. Pour this over the rhubarb, and bake in the same moderate heat as for the pastry, and check it after 20 minutes, by gently shaking the flan dish – if it still wobbles in the centre, (which it almost certainly will) bake it for 10-15 minutes more before testing again.
After 20 minutes, scatter the Demerara sugar as evenly as you can over the entire surface. The time it takes to set the custard depends on the rhubarb, but the custard should barely wobble, then take the flan dish from the oven and leave to cool. Serve just warm.
Rhubarb and ginger wine syllabub
1½ lb/675g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into chunks about 1in/2cm
finely grated rind of 1 orange and its juice
6oz/175g soft light brown sugar
Put the above ingredients into a saucepan over moderate heat. Cover the pan with its lid and cook the rhubarb gently until it softens. Don’t be tempted to add water, if the temperature is moderate the rhubarb will steep in its own delicious juice with no need for water – the orange juice is enough liquid. The flavour of the undiluted rhubarb juice is more intense and delicious. When cooked, cool, then divide evenly between 6 glasses.
For the ginger wine syllabub
1 pint/570ml double cream
2 tablespoons of syrup from preserved ginger jar
3 pieces of preserved ginger sliced finely – this is for garnish
4 tablespoons ginger wine, such as Crabbie’s or Stone’s
Whip the cream with the ginger syrup and, as the cream thickens, gradually add the ginger wine, a spoonful at a time whipping each in before adding the next. Divide this mixture evenly between the 6 glasses, spooning it over the rhubarb. Garnish each with a few slivers of ginger, heaping them in the centre of the syllabub.
TOP TIP: Early season forced rhubarb generally requires less cooking time than garden grown varieties. Look for firm, upright stalks