Until a few years ago, rhubarb was a stranger to me. The word, the sight of the plant, the tang of the taste, were all unfamiliar. I blame my culinarily sheltered childhood. Mr A&N, on the other hand, having grown up in God's own rhubarb triangle, can't hear the rumblings of the syllable 'rhuuuu' without getting a tear in his eye.
I was skeptical about its worth. It's a strange looking character, growing like giant fronds of swiss chard and thriving in the winter. "But what does it taste like?" I curiously asked the Yorkshire-based A&N clan. "Oh, awful in its natural state" was the universal response. Bitter. Stringy. The leaves are poisonous. This was sounding like one of Those Very British (quirky) Things. "So how do you eat it?" I wondered, skeptical facade uncracked. Boiled in tons and tons of sugar, I was told, which makes it taste "wonderful". It seemed an obvious truth to me that anything boiled in its own weight of sugar would wind up tasting pretty good, but they were adamant I needed to allow rhubarb into my life.
With the steady drip-drip of rhubarb each winter, it turns out I was wrong to doubt the goodness of rhubarb. It is tangy (to put it mildly) but part of the joy comes with balancing that with other flavors, either sweet or savory like Freddie just tried in The Great Big Vegetable Challenge. With its improbable pink color and its love of frost, it is a ray of brightness in the winter gloom. Forced rhubarb in particular is a funny creature, grown and picked in dim candle light since anything brighter would stop its growth. It's also very healthy, having only 7 calories per 100 grams and is full of vitamin C and calcium. I'm such a convert that I'm being tempted by the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival from the March 7 - 8.
I knew I'd find some forced rhubarb at my favorite British produce stand at my local market, and so I tried to think of the best use for it. My friend Lorraine who lives in Oman very generously mailed me some Madagascan vanilla pods she picked up cheaply in her market (markets are wonderful things) so I was eager to use those at the same time. Rhubarb with vanilla custard is an obvious combination, but I felt more in a cakey mood. Cue the rhubarb cake, with a light vanilla bod, mushy tart middle layer of rhubarb, and a crunchy nutty crumble. It was, in a word, wonderful, just as I was promised rhubarb would to be.
Rhubarb Crumble Cake (lightly adapted from the National Trust recipe)
Makes an 8 inch cake
- 3 oz butter
- 3 oz caster sugar
- 2 eggs
- 3 oz self-raising flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla essences
- 2-3 Tbs milk
- 1lb rhubarb
- 1 Tbsp demerara sugar
For the topping:
- 2 oz butter
- 3 oz plain flour
- 1 oz caster sugar
- handful of walnuts, roughly chopped
- Heat the oven to GM5/190’C/375’F. Grease and line an 8’’ round cake tin.
- Cream together the butter and the sugar, beat in the eggs and vanilla (either the essence or, if using a pod, split it open and scrape out the sticky bean goo inside and add it to the sugar mixture).
- Fold in the flour and salt.
- Add enough milk to give a dropping consistency(about 2-3 Tbs).
- Slice the rhubarb into 1’’ pieces and toss with the demerara sugar.
- Pour the cake base into the tin, and cover it in the rhubarb-sugar mixture.
- Make the topping by rubbing the butter into the flour and then stirring in the sugar and. Follow by tossing in the chopped walnuts
- Sprinkle the crumble topping evenly over the rhubarb, pressing down lightly.
- Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake feels firm on top.