SPRING is a wonderful time to make the most of the many colours the season brings to the plate. Lighter, brighter dishes are called for, and desserts are no exception.
Using colourful ingredients in your desserts at this time of year helps create not only delicious dishes, but visually stunning ones too. If you’re planning a spring bank holiday get-together, delicate deserts can be the perfect thing to serve – and they never fail to impress.
Two great seasonal favourites of mine are forced rhubarb and blood oranges. Nothing quite adds colour to a dish like these too lovely, distinctive ingredients.
Buying fruit and vegetables during their natural season means you get the very best flavour and superior quality, but rhubarb is the one exception. Forced rhubarb, just before it comes into its natural season, is grown in sheds, which allows the pale pink shoots to grow quickly as they reach up to seek out light.
Forcing creates a much sweeter flavour and a beautiful blushed pink colour. Forced rhubarb differs from the outdoor-grown stalks as it has an elegant sourness that calls for only very light cooking – perfect for the most delicate of desserts.
Remember, though, that although a less tart variety, it still needs a hint of added sweetness to balance it out. Rhubarb is also packed with juice, which it releases readily when cooked, so you should only need to add very little or no liquid at all when cooking with it.
If you’re buying forced rhubarb, look out for firm, upright stalks. The leaves should always be removed, but make sure you avoid any with brown or black leaves.
I like to make rhubarb crumble as soon as I get the first batch of rhubarb, as it is one of my wife Michaela’s favourite puddings. Rhubarb crumble is so simple to make but it’s also rewarding – not only for the taste, but also for the smell it creates around the house.
Rhubarb also features on our lunch menu at the restaurant and it’s one of those dishes that always leaves our diners with a smile on their face as the plate of pretty pink is presented to them.
If you can carefully balance the sweetness and the sharpness, rhubarb is the perfect match for other strong, bold flavours – like orange zest, ginger and honey. As well as crumbles and puddings, forced rhubarb also works well with savoury dishes – a slightly sweetened rhubarb compote, for example, can be delicious with seasonal mackerel, roast pork or lamb.
Another of my spring favourites is blood oranges, with their distinctive, dark crimson flesh and tart flavour. They have a very short season and really come into their own in early spring, toward the end of the citrus season. Though only at their best for a short time, it certainly is worth trying to make the most of them.
Blood oranges can be used in the same way as other oranges – ideal in soufflés, puddings and sauces to give a bold burst of citrus freshness. They work particularly well in jellies because they add juiciness and a nice fiery colour to the plate. Again, the sweet and sour balance – rather like rhubarb – means they work well in both sweet and savoury dishes, from puddings and jellies to salads and sauces.
The glorious red colour in blood oranges is created by anthocyanin, an antioxidant that develops when the fruit ripens during warm days tempered with cooler nights. They are smaller than average oranges and their skin is usually pitted, though it can also be smooth. In general, the taste of blood oranges is sweeter than other oranges. The juice is also delicious, but because it is sweeter than other orange juice it ferments quickly and should be used on the same day that it is squeezed.
Whatever spring desserts you decide to try this season, I recommend you to think about bringing some fresh colours on to your plate. They are bound to impress and put a spring in your step.
Rhubarb Crumble Tarts
For the pastry
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
50g icing sugar
150g unsalted butter, in pieces
1 free-range medium egg
1 free-range medium egg yolk, lightly beaten
For the filling
6 rhubarb stalks, de-strung if necessary and cut into 1cm lengths
finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange
For the crumble topping
250g plain flour
pinch sea salt
200g cold unsalted butter, in pieces
200g soft light brown sugar
75g rolled oats (or oatmeal)
few drops pink food colouring
lemon thyme or shredded mint
To make the pastry
Sift the flour and icing sugar together into a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the whole egg and pulse briefly again until the mixture just comes together into a dough.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, knead gently and then flatten into a round. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to a 3mm-4mm thickness and use it to line four flan tins (7.5cm in diameter and 2.5cm deep). Trim the excess pastry from the edges. Place in the fridge to rest for 15 minutes before baking. Heat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
Line the pastry cases with baking parchment and add a layer of baking beans. Bake the pastry cases ‘blind’ for ten minutes, then remove the paper and beans and bake for a further ten minutes – until the pastry is cooked right through. Remove the paper and beans and brush the inside of the hot pastry cases with the beaten egg yolk to seal. Then set aside on a wire rack.
To make the filling
Put the rhubarb into a heavy-based saucepan with the sugar and orange zest and juice. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat and cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until the rhubarb is softened but still holding its shape.
To make the crumble
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the butter and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the brown sugar, oats and a little food colouring – to give the crumble a nice pastel pink colour. Cover with clingfilm and leave to chill for 20 minutes.
Scatter the crumble on a baking tray and bake in the oven for six to eight minutes, until golden and crispy.
Warm the rhubarb compote, if necessary, and use to fill the tart cases. Scatter the crumble evenly over the surface. Finish with a sprinkling of herbs or leave plain if you prefer. Serve with pouring cream or a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
Blood Orange Jelly
This dish is a layered jelly and works well with the stunning colours you get from the blood orange. It’s always a winner when entertaining guests. Nowadays you can buy really nice individual jelly containers in cookware shops. My favourites are the ones with lids on either end, which allows the air to escape.
For the blood orange jelly
500ml blood orange juice
juice of one lemon
4 gelatine leaves
For the milk jelly
1 gelatine leaf
For the blood orange jelly
Soak the gelatine in cold water. Meanwhile, mix the blood orange juice, lemon juice, water and sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat. Squeeze the excess water from the gelatine, then add to the juice mix and whisk together.
For the milk jelly
Soak the gelatine in cold water. Warm the milk, sugar and water together in a pan. Squeeze the excess water from the gelatine and then add to the milk and whisk together.
To layer the jellies
Take your jelly mould and add the blood orange juice jelly to bottom, then put it in the fridge to set. Once set, remove from the fridge and add a layer of the milk jelly on top. Return it to the fridge and allow to set.
Repeat the layering process until your mould is as full as you wish and leave to set completely in the fridge.
Remove the jelly from the mould and serve with segments of fresh blood orange.