Pretty in pink: Time to welcome rhubarb season
For a stylish last-minute dessert, a healthy breakfast or a delicious cake, reach for the rhubarb
Rhubarb crumble cake. Photograph: Harry Weir
I always look forward to seeing rhubarb appear in shops in springtime. Often mistaken as a fruit, it is, in fact, a vegetable. As a child, we grew rhubarb down the bottom of the garden beside the gooseberries. The wheelbarrow, compost heap and nettles were close neighbours so we hardly paid any attention to those bitter crops, as my dad also grew bountiful canes of raspberries and strawberries, which were ripe for the picking and eating in summer.
Just as red berries are used to decorate desserts, I love the pretty pink colour of young rhubarb that is available early in the season. When you buy exceptionally pink stalks, it is usually forced rhubarb. Forced rhubarb plants are covered with an upturned clay pot blackening all light out, forcing the stems to shoot up sooner as they seek out sunlight.
As rhubarb has an affinity with orange juice and strawberries, this is a good way to add natural sweetness in desserts. When I want to retain the shape of the stem and lovely pink colour, I prefer to cook rhubarb gently in the oven so it doesn’t collapse and become too stewed, and this is the method I am using in this cake. Half the rhubarb is set aside to serve with the cake. Alternatively, baked rhubarb makes a deliciously healthy breakfast when served with layers of yoghurt, granola, nuts and seeds.
If you really want that pink colour, a neat little trick is to add a little grenadine syrup
As a stylish last-minute dessert, serve it as a compote in a fancy glass with ice cream, chopped nuts, blitzed-up biscuits or perhaps a few white chocolate drops. Even plain old rhubarb poached in a sweetened sugar syrup is one of my favourite fillings for pies, crumbles and fools. If you really want that pink colour, a neat little trick is to add a little grenadine syrup.
Rhubarb crumble cake
450g forced rhubarb
Washed 2 oranges, juice of
4 tbsp sugar
200g softened butter
200g soft brown sugar
4 eggs, lightly whisked
180g self-raising flour
For the crumb
50g amaretti biscuits, crushed
50g softened butter
50g sugar (any type)
To serve: 200g vanilla ice cream
1. Preheat oven to 190°C fan and grease and line a 20cm round cake tin with parchment paper.
2. Cut the rhubarb into pencil-thick, 2cm-long batons. Mix together the orange juice and sugar. Toss the rhubarb in the liquid and pour everything into a baking tray, cover tightly with tinfoil and bake for eight minutes until the rhubarb pieces are cooked but still holding their shape. Keep it covered and set aside to cool.
3. With an electric whisk, cream the butter and soft brown sugar until pale and then gradually add in the eggs. Mix in the flour to a smooth batter.
4. Spoon half the cake mixture into the lined tin.
5. Divide the baked rhubarb in half and drain away the juice (or keep the juice as it is so tasty). Cover the batter with the drained rhubarb, then spoon the remaining cake batter over the rhubarb. In this recipe, you may decide to add more rhubarb into the batter, in which case add the extra rhubarb to the outer edges, which will cook quicker than the centre of the cake.
6. For the crumb, blitz the amaretti biscuits, butter and sugar, briefly. Sprinkle the rough crumb evenly over the cake batter.
7. Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for one hour (reduce the oven temperature to 180°C if the cake starts to darken on the top). Test if the cake is done with a skewer – it should come out clean when it is baked through.
8. Set aside to cool briefly in the tin. Serve it warm for dessert with the remaining baked rhubarb and vanilla ice cream.
Variation: To poach rhubarb, place in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of sugar, lemon rind and any exotic spices you like such as cinnamon, ginger, star anise or cardamom. Add just enough water so it doesn’t stick to the pan, cook on a low heat, covered, for 5-10 minutes until just softened.