April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
So wrote one of my favourite poets, T.S. Eliot. But I’m afraid I beg to differ! I think that if you like in the Northern hemisphere, February is the cruellest. December is jam packed with the excitement of Christmas, all fairy lights and mulled wine and rosy cheeks, wrapping presents and debating the likelihood of a white Christmas. January is the month of rebirth and renewal – everybody is going to the gym, giving up alcohol, giving up meat and generally being so busy sticking to new year’s resolutions and trying to pay off December’s credit card bill that the month whooshes past without their even noticing. And then… February rolls in. Gym membership cards lie abandoned. Dry January gives way to Hangover February. And temperatures dip from the pleasantly bracing to bone-chillingly cold. Christmas is a distant memory. Easter is too far away to even contemplate. And nobody has money to escape to a beach any time soon. Wake me up at about a quarter to June please!!
The other issue I have with February is the dearth of all the fresh fruits I love. Oh, sure, you can go to the supermarket and buy fruit – strawberries at Christmas, peaches for new year, and blackberries at Easter. But you can be almost sure that none of these were grown in the UK. They were either flown in from the other side of the Equator where summer is in full swing; of forced reluctantly to ripeness in a greenhouse in one of the countries across the channel in Europe. You know, Europe – as in the EU? Our biggest trading partner and producer of a disturbingly huge proportion of what we see in the fresh produce aisle? That bloc that we have been hell-bent on severing ourselves from since the summer of 2016…? As Brexit D-Day fast approaches, there are gloomy predictions of fresh food shortages, stockpiling of olive oil, and a colleague has even taken to clearing her local shop’s shelves of ibuprofen and paracetamol tablets in case there is a shortage after the end of March. If the press is to be believed, as from April, if we want fruit that is not grown in the UK, we will be having to make do with tinned peaches.
But wait! There is a fruit that grows quite happily in the UK in the dead of winter! And it would seem that in the absence of imported fruits, it is on the cusp of a Cinderella moment. Arise, Sir Rhubarb! Rhubarb originated in the frozen wastes of Siberia and as it turns out, thrives in the cold and wet winters of Yorkshire. There is even 9 square mile area of Yorkshire (between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell) called the Rhubarb Triangle which is famous for its forced rhubarb. In fact, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has received Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme. “Forcing” rhubarb involves growing and harvesting it in darkened sheds so that the stalks (the edible part of the plant) take on a deep crimson hue and a more tender texture than rhubarb grown outdoors (which is more green than red). This weekend marks the weekend of the Wakefield Food, Drink and Rhubarb festival, so what better time to share with you eight rhubarb recipes that you need to make this winter.
If you are looking for a dessert so simple even a fool could make it, look no further than… erm… this rhubarb, cranberry and ginger fool! A fool consists of puréed stewed fruit folded into cream or creme fraiche – and the good news is that if you make the recipe just up to the compote stage, you can freeze it, meaning that this dessert can be ready in the time it takes you to defrost your compote and whip your cream. You will love the combination of tart rhubarb, spicy ginger and sweet dried cranberries – you’d be a fool not to!
Clafoutis (also sometime spelled clafouti) is a French country dessert which originated in the Limousin region in Southwest France. The word comes from the French word clafir which means ‘to fill’ and it is traditionally made with the first sweet cherries of the season, baked in a batter rather like a pancake batter (heavy on the sugar and eggs, light on the flour). The result is more of a baked custard than a cake or pudding, wobbly on the inside and crisp on the outside, studded with fruit. For this recipe, the cream used to make the batter was infused with ginger, adding extra oomph to this classic French dessert.
There comes a magical sweet spot towards the end of Spring when the very first strawberries start to appear in the shops, but the last of the rhubarb is still finding its way onto the shelves. That’s the time you have to seize the day and take advantage of this to combine these two crimson glories in a tart. These delicious little tarts make the most of the bright red colours of both the strawberries and the rhubarb, while allowing the berries to make up for the sweetness that the rhubarb lacks.
Pretty little tartlets are all fine and well, but sometimes only a proper cake will do the trick. This rhubarb and strawberry cake was inspired by my love of upside-down cakes, and the arrival in my kitchen of five sturdy stalks of rhubarb from the “share the bounty” surplus table at the local allotments. Strawberries and rhubarb are a match made in heaven, especially combined with a moist, spiced, caramelly cake – a massive crowd pleaser and just as good cold the next day as it is fresh and warm out of the oven.
Muffins – what’s not to love?? Smaller and less of a commitment than a cake; but not as fussy as a cupcake (who can be dealing with all that icing?) – and so forgiving in terms of tinkering with the recipe! You can make them super healthy and packed with fibre and vegetables, or you can make them decadent and sweet. Or you can go for a happy medium as I did with these deliciously seasonal and gently spiced rhubarb and pear muffins, made with half white and half wholemeal flour.
For some reason, many people feel slightly nervous about making a baked cheesecake – quite unfairly so – because they perceive them to be “tricky”. Part of the problem with baked cheesecakes is that contain a fundamentally different ratio of ingredients to “normal” cakes and behave totally differently when baked. But in reality, the cheesecake is no harder than other cakes to get right, provided you have the right equipment and pay attention to some simple rules (the post contains five top tips for baked cheesecakes!). This rhubarb and white chocolate cheesecake is as visually impressive as it is delicious and as a bonus it’s great for gluten-free diets, provided you use gluten-free cookies for the base.
I have always described myself as a cook rather than a baker. With cooking, you get to add a dash of this and a splash of that and generally go off-piste with the recipe – and the stew still turns out delicious. But with baking you not only have to follow the recipe fairly carefully, you also need to shape the finished product carefully to make it pretty. My life is too short!! If you share my views on baking then galettes are for you. Less fussy than a pie or tart with a pretty fluted edge, these galettes are rather rustic, free-form tarts made with a single crust of pastry, simply rolled out and roughly crimped around a fruity filling – no stress at all. And what better filling than bright red rhubarb and strawberries!
There can be few more satisfying fruit-based desserts than a crumble. Fruit stewed with sugar and possibly spices, smothered in a crumb of butter, sugar and flour – what could go wrong? And because of the sweet crunchy topping that loves to soak up the juices of the fruit beneath, cumbles lend themselves particularly well to rhubarb which is by its nature not overly sweet and releases a lot of syrupy goodness when cooked. Served with a healthy dollop of warm custard, there can be few more clasically British sweet pleasures.
Feeling inspired yet? Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed your favourite way to eat rhubarb! And if you enjoyed these, please have a look at my other recipes.
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