Ah, spring is in the air. The blossom is out and it is getting warmer. We’ve had a couple of false starts, but the temperature is starting to creep upwards and the signs of the changing season are all around us. With the warmer weather, we also get the first English rhubarb.
Anyone who grew up in Britain will have remember this “fruit” from their childhood with a combination of fear and trepidation. While it should change from astringent to pleasantly tart through cooking with enough sugar, too often this ended up as a sour green-brown pulp, maybe drowned in lumpy custard if you were lucky. I also recall the alarming fact that you should never cook it in aluminium as it will dissolve the metal (*). Now, does all this sound appealing? Nope, thought not.
How times change. I’m mentioned the rediscovery of childhood favourites and traditional food before, and it seems rhubarb has been part of this, except that it is now featuring in more sophisticated guises, including (to my amazement) the rather marvellous Rhubarb Martini at London’s fashionable Skylon cocktail bar.
Here is my take on the old favourite, rhubarb tart. I had tried a recipe from Nigella Lawson last year, but it was way too creamy. My version has a very thin pastry shell, bigs up the proportion of tangy fruit, and replaces the lashings of rich, sweet mascarpone cream with a little lightly whipped cream. However, Nigella’s tip for preparing the fruit is excellent – rather than stewing, she recommends gently roasting the rhubarb in the oven with a little sugar, which means you end up with tender chunks of rhubarb which burst with flavour and have a positively fluorescent pink colour.
For the tart:
Step 1 – the fruit
• 800g pink rhubarb
• 100g sugar
Step 2 – the pastry:
• 150g plain flour
• 75g butter
• pinch salt
• 2 tablespoon icing sugar
• cold water (to bind – I used 4 scant tablespoons)
Step 3 – the cream filling:
• 300ml double cream
• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• few drops vanilla extract
Start with the fruit: wash, dry and trim the rhubarb. Cut into 2cm pieces with a sharp knife. Put into a glass oven dish, sprinkle with the sugar and mix gently. Put into an oven at 120°C for around an hour. Watch it like a hawk – the rhubarb should be pink and tender, but not starting to brown. You may also want to open the oven mid-cooking and mix gently so that everything is coated in the rhubarb syrup. Once ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Next, the pastry: Use your fingers to combine the flour, salt, icing sugar and butter in a bowl until it resembles breadcrumbs. Now add cold water, one teaspoon at a time, until the mixture just comes together. Cover with film, and allow to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Roll the chilled pastry as thinly as possible and use to line a 20cm loose-bottomed pie tin (try not to stretch it, otherwise it shrinks when you cook it). Put the lined tin into the freezer and allow to chill for 20 minutes. Bake blind at 150°C for around 25 minutes until the pastry is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
For the cream filling: whisk the cream, sugar and vanilla lightly until it is thick-ish but still floppy.
To assemble the tart: Spoon the cream into the pastry shell and spread evenly. Spoon the cooled rhubarb onto the pie (a little at a time), and drizzle any remaining syrup over the tart.
Worth making? In my view, this is the best way to cook rhubarb. The result is so nice that even those otherwise traumatised by their childhood memories of mushy rhubarb will like it. Even if you don’t make the tart, this is a lovely way to prepare rhubarb for serving with yoghurt or ice-cream. Just don’t add too much sugar, so that the sharpness of the rhubarb shines through.
(*) This is what I learned as a child, and duly tried it with a saucepan in the hope that the rhubarb would dissolve the pan before my eyes. As it turns out, the myth is not as dramatic as reality. The rhubarb will discolour and take on a metallic taste, and you don’t really want a dose of aluminum with your rhubarb. Stick to glass pots!