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Hold the custard! 17 ways with rhubarb – from perfect muffins to pink gin

When I was growing up in the US, people sometimes spoke of rhubarb – they seemed mildly amused by the word – but no one I knew ever ate it. I don’t think I’d ever really seen any until I came to the UK, where – from my point of view, at least – people got a little too excited about the annual arrival of this pink dessert celery.

Rhubarb is a vegetable masquerading as fruit, and as such requires a bit of sugar to make it palatable. But not too much: the tartness of rhubarb is the whole point. I was converted to it through its two most traditional incarnations: rhubarb fool and rhubarb crumble. Sometimes, the former is made with custard, but I prefer Felicity Cloake’s straight double cream version, with just a little added yoghurt, not least because it’s easier. Her perfect crumble is similarly unassailable. And custard is very much required.

Hold the sugar … rhubarb upside down cake.
Steady with the sugar … rhubarb upside-down cake. Photograph: Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy

But these are by no means the only two options. Rhubarb is versatile and plentiful, and we are now just moving from the pale pink rhubarb of winter – forced in dark sheds – to the first outdoor crop. Some people prefer forced (it’s sweeter and more tender), and others prize the tougher, less pink stuff. Here are some more ways to make the most of either.

The classic marriage of rhubarb and custard gets its vows renewed in Liam Charles’s rhubarb Portuguese custard tarts. Claire Thompson’s rhubarb and yoghurt muffins take advantage of rhubarb’s known affinity with ginger, as does James Martin’s rhubarb and ginger queen of puddings, the perfect blend of wintry privation and summery excess for an unseasonably cold spring evening.

The above recipes, and most others, require the rhubarb stalks to be softened with sugar, either on the hob or in the oven. Here’s one that doesn’t: Dan Lepard’s rhubarb upside-down cake is baked in one go, with the cake mixture poured over the rhubarb and the whole thing inverted for serving, so the rhubarb layer becomes the top. Thomasina Miers’ rhubarb, star anise and hazelnut galette also needs no pre-baking – the rhubarb simply macerates in a bowl with the sugar and spices for 15 minutes first.

Meera Sodha’s rhubarb, cardamom and pistachio tart.
Meera Sodha’s rhubarb, cardamom and pistachio tart. Photograph: Louise Hagger/The Guardian

The toad-in-the-hole-like French pudding clafoutis is usually made with cherries or some other early autumn fruit, but it also works well with rhubarb at the other side of the year, as Ruby Tandoh demonstrates here. Again, no pre-roasting is necessary – just arrange the rhubarb in an ovenproof dish, pour the batter over it and bake. Meera Sodha’s vegan rhubarb, cardamom and pistachio tart requires a bit more construction: the rhubarb is arranged in an interlocked, tessellated fashion – as fussily as your personality dictates – in a blind-baked pastry tart, and secured in place by a mortar of frangipane filling.

The bright acidity of rhubarb means it’s not just for desserts – indeed, you have to wonder who thought to put it in a pudding in the first place. For this Asian-inspired sweet-and-sour soup rhubarb joins a surprising shopping list of ingredients: okra, pineapple, garlic and fish sauce. Yotam Ottolenghi’s rhubarb and sumac kimchi replaces the pickled cabbage in a traditional Korean kimchi with a combination of rhubarb, carrot, fennel and spring onion.

Nigel Slater’s mackerel with rhubarb is, if nothing else, an easy introduction to such a provocative pairing: the rhubarb is roasted as usual, then briefly tossed in the mackerel juices after the fish has been pan-fried, along with some capers and a bit of sherry vinegar. Jamie Oliver also makes a lovely rhubarb sauce – with apple, orange, honey and cloves – to serve over poached salmon.

Anna Jones’s rhubarb and potato traybake is a side dish transformed into a meal by the addition of feta, rolled oats and almonds. This rhubarb and pork chop traybake is transformed into a meal by the addition of, well, pork chops.

Rhubarb and potato traybake.
Rhubarb and potato traybake. Photograph: Matt Russell/The Guardian

Instead of using Angostura bitters, you can tinge gin pink with rhubarb: a kilo of stalks steeped in 800ml of gin (along with 400g of sugar) will turn an exotic blushing rose colour in about four weeks, and thereafter fade a bit. The result sounds a bit sweet for a G&T, but ice and sparkling water would probably strike the right balance.

But if it’s a proper cocktail you fancy, try this rhubarb margarita from James Walters of the Arabica bar. Or try two – no one is forcing you.

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