Monday, 7 April 2008

Rhubarbe Deux Fois (Rhubarb Two Times)

One might think, browsing through the (slim) archives of Les Petit Pois, that I never eat dessert. It's not altogether untrue. Here in Paris, unless I've made a special, cross-town outing to Pierre Herme or a similarly-pedigreed pastry shop, I tend to finish a meal with nothing more than a square or two of good chocolate. In London, the situation is similar, if not more pronounced. Though the city is by no means lacking good cake, it's just not something I make any effort to procure.

More disturbing, though, is that homemade desserts don't feature in my kitchen repertory. Although I long ago realized that I lacked the fine motor skills to have any future as a pastry professional, I nonetheless considered myself to be a baker. The products of my oven would be of the homespun variety--rustic fruit tarts, quick breads and cookies--the stuff, I reckoned, that most people really wanted to eat anyway. I would be the one called on to bring desserts to dinner parties, the one whose experiments would be pounced on in the office break room, and the giver of much-appreciated edible gifts.

The reality has been somewhat different. I can blame it in large part on my landladies, neither of whom saw it as a priority to replace broken ovens. And while this situation forced me to become a master of braising, there is not much except for pudding which can be made without that heated box. I also lacked ready and sizeable audiences. A cheesecake, no matter how good, cannot be consumed by two people. There was one period of frenetic baking, during a brief sojourn at my parents' Washington home. But while at least one occupant of the household eagerly devoured my variations on Jewish bakery classics such as rugelach, hamentaschen and coffee cake, my successes in this area were never repeated.

The truth is that I hadn't--and still haven't--found a focus for my ostensible baking energies. For that reason, today's rhubarb recipes--while both worthwhile to make and to eat--are nothing more than compotes. But while I may not be the most credible authority on this matter, having eaten them plain or with Greek yogurt, believe me when I say that they would be delicious with cake, specifically Claudia Roden's much-copied, never-bettered flourless almond and citrus one. For Nigel's compote, use oranges, for Gordon's, lemons. Let me know how it turns out.

* * *
Forced rhubarb--the thinner, fuschia-hued stalk that appears early in the season--is prettier both to look at and to eat. Some even say it has a more delicate flavour--though I've never been able to tell the difference.

Nigel's Rhubarb

adapted from a recipe in The Guardian
Total time: 30 minutes; Active time: 5 minutes

450g rhubarb
a vanilla pod (optional)
the juice of 2 blood oranges and the zest of 1
3 level tbsp brown sugar

Cut the rhubarb into bite-size lengths and place in a non-reactive saucepan. Scrape in the vanilla seeds, if using, adding the spent pod. Finely grate the orange zest and squeeze the juice into the pan. Measure in the sugar and turn the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb collapses under the weight of a spoon. Check the sweetness and serve warm or chilled.

Gordon's Rhubarb

adapted from a recipe in The Times
Total time: 45 minutes, including oven pre-heating; Active time: 5 minutes

500g rhubarb
75g brown sugar
1 lemon
Handful of thyme sprigs

Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut the rhubarb into bite-size pieces, first splitting the stalks lengthwise if they are wider than your finger. Place these in an ovenproof dish and top with sugar. Add a few strips of lemon peel, along with a small squeeze of juice, the thyme leaves, cover with foil and place in the oven. Check after 20 minutes, continue to cook if necessary until the rhubarb is tender but not collapsed. Pour out the juices into a small pan and reduce for a few minutes, or until syrupy.

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