Monday, 21 February 2011

Rhubarb, rhubarb

Rhubarb: I can never quite get my head around which type is in season and when. Considering I am writing about this strange fruit today, I thought I'd better look it up and then discuss the subject as if I am an expert. According to my Eden Project 'Seasonal Food' compendium, the stuff that's around now is forced rhubarb, traditionally grown in the dark. I remember watching a Rick Stein Food Heroes programme where RS visited a Yorkshire rhubarb farm. The plant was growing in huge barns and the farmers tended it by candlelight, and you could actually hear the rhubarb creaking as it grew. Magic.

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So this is the pale-fleshed, pink-skinned variety, which looks a little like crabsticks when you chop it up. Donna Hay is clearly a total master at everything, and turns out she knows a thing or two about rhubarb - there is an entire cooking section devoted to her rhubarb recipes in the March 2011 edition of Living Etc. DH is also a genius at styling, and all the recipes looked beautiful but I decided to attempt the Rhubarb Scones with Rhubarb and Vanilla Jam. Afternoon tea is always good, and this version would be particularly nice with a new Chamomile and Vanilla Pukka tea I've just bought. Perfect for a winter weekend of baking. Less so with two small people to look after at the same time, getting under my feet.

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The scones began well. The recipe calls for a basic scone mix with the addition of cream instead of butter, to which you add the diced rhubarb that has been macerating (isn't that the best word?) in vanilla essence and sugar. Inevitably, this process resulted in a couple of tablespoonfuls of liquid coming out of the rhubarb. I had to think quickly... add this or drain the fruit? The recipe didn't say. The scone mix was quite stiff, so I decided to add the liquid. Wrong decision, which I realised almost immediately but it was too late. I blame the smalls. Donna instructed me to roll the mixture out to a 3cm thickness, which I would've done had the dough not been completely soggy. 'Cut into 5cm scones', said Donna. I gave it a go, but the mixture was too loose and began to creep out towards the sides of the baking tray. I had right royally rhubarbed it up. I had to cook the 'scones' for longer than the recipe said, and the end result was not good - more like cookies than scones, they were thin and hard rather than chunky and light. But the flavour was perfect - sharp fruit sweetened by the sugar and vanilla, and rich with cream. A second attempt is definitely on the cards. Incidentally, the cookie-like appearance made me think a rhubarb and white chocolate cookie would be really rather marvellous.

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The jam, though. Well, it was something else. So simple - rhubarb, sugar, water, vanilla pod/seeds. Boil up, as you would any other kind of jam. Makes a very small amount - 250ml or so - but as it's a soft-set jam you have to keep it in the fridge and it only lasts for 2 weeks. The end result is utterly beautiful... that perfect pink, the shade only rhubarb and Mattel can produce, densely polka-dotted with vanilla seeds. (Incidentally, if you like a good soft-set, I can recommend Marks & Spencer's soft set plum jam. Falls just at the right place on the sharp-sweet spectrum.)

So not entirely a success, but enough of one to try again - better hurry up before the fleeting rhubarb season is over.

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