Rhubarb ruminations and recipe ideas

Spring rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

At last, my forced rhubarb was ready to pick this week! Now I feel the season of Spring has begun. Long before all other fruits in the garden are even formed,  forced rhubarb gives us a flavour of all the sweet delights yet to come.

To me, rhubarb is associated with fond memories of my childhood. My grandparents used to grow “forests” of the thick, leafy stems in the summer – no summer holiday was complete without one of Grannie’s rhubarb crumbles.

If you fancy having a go at growing your own, now is the best time of year to buy yourself a  rhubarb plant (or “crown”) and get it in the ground ready for next year.

My first rhubarb harvest of 2017. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Rhubarb grows best in an open site, ideally in the sun, but it will grow anywhere. It likes a good mulching and needs plenty of soil depth as the roots, once established, run deep. Give it a good feed once in a while and it will do well. It is very easy to grow and a single plant will provide a good yield for a small family. Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but most of us regard it as a fruit because we serve it mostly for pudding. Only the stalks are edible – the leaves are high in oxalic acid and are, subsequently, very toxic.

Hold yourself back and avoid picking any stems in the first year of planting a new crown. In the second year, pull a few stems, leaving about half of the plant untouched. Once a plant is established – after 3 years – you can pick as many stems as you want. A rhubarb plant can be “forced” at this age, ready for an early crop in spring. You can buy special rhubarb forcers – very tall, slim, terracotta pots – which go over the crown in late winter. These are very expensive; I use the tallest pot I have and this works fine – as you can see in the image above. Although the pot covering doesn’t produce really long stems, they are good enough for me. I’ve put the pot back over the crown again, ready for the next batch of stems to grow – usually the plant produces four good batches of stems before I leave it to recover and rejuvenate for next year.

I have 3 rhubarb plants in the garden now. Each year, I rotate a plant for forcing, and the other 2 are left for summer eating rhubarb, and for freezing. Here are a few tips and ideas for cooking and serving rhubarb:

  • High in acidity, there are a few flavours that help temper the tartness of rhubarb: ginger, cinnamon, orange rind and juice, coconut, banana, angelica and liquorice.
  • Trim the leaves from spring rhubarb and discard, then rinse the stems well and slice off the base. Cut into 3cm pieces for really quick cooking, but leave in longer pieces for gentle poaching and using to top tarts or desserts. Spring rhubarb takes barely 4-5 minutes to cook. I usually place the pieces in a frying pan and sprinkle with sugar and add 1 – 2 tablespoons of water. Once it begins to steam, cover with a lid and cook gently.

    Preparing spring rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
  • For a tangy sweet and sour sauce, cook rhubarb in a little water with sufficient sugar to make it edible, then add a dash of raspberry or balsamic vinegar. Served cold, it goes well with roast duck, smoked mackerel or pan-fried herring.
  • A favourite simple dessert of mine is to mix mashed banana, coconut (non-dairy) yogurt and vanilla extract together and layer in glasses with poached, vanilla sugar-sweetened rhubarb. It is absolute deliciousness guaranteed!

    Rhubarb, banana and coconut pots. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  • For an easy pastry, bake-off a sheet of (gluten-free) puff pastry and allow to cool, then top with thick (dairy-free) custard and lightly poached stems of sweetened rhubarb. Always a winning combination…..rhubarb and custard.
    Rhubarb and custard tart. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    I have posted a couple of other rhubarb recipes in my blog over the months, here are the links Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan) and Rhubarb and custard ice lollies (gluten-free)

    Tender pink stems of forced rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

For me, one of the signs that Spring is on its way is the first harvest of my forced rhubarb. I love the rich colour of the stalks, their tenderness when cooked and the mild astringent, tartness of flavour that really packs a punch on the palate. Sadly, my rhubarb is not ready for picking just yet as you can see below, but I couldn’t resist the fresh stalks I saw in the local farm shop this week.

My homegrown forced rhubarb in late February. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
Spring rhubarb. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

One of my favourite pairings with rhubarb is raspberry. Whilst it seems like a long time ago I had raspberries ripening in the garden, I have a few packs in the freezer, and this recipe is the perfect opportunity to delve into my supplies.

I love the name of this dish. I assume it comes from the hybridisation of the pudding called “slump” and the one called “crumble”. The recipe works fine with any cooked fruit baked underneath the glorious, melt-in-the-mouth topping. The custard is a recent addition to my recipe and brings an extra spoonful of comfort at this time of the year.

Last years homegrown raspberries. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Serves: 6

  • 350g fresh rhubarb, trimmed
  • 50g vanilla sugar (or you can use plain caster if you prefer)
  • 175g frozen raspberries
  • 115g dairy free margarine (or butter if you eat it), very soft
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 175g gluten-free plain flour blend (I use Doves Farm)
  • 5ml good quality vanilla extract
  • 500ml gluten-free, dairy-free custard
  1. Trim the rhubarb and cut into 5cm lengths. If you have thin and wider stalks, cut the stalks down so that they are all roughly the same width – this helps the rhubarb cook more evenly.
  2. Arrange neatly in a large, lidded shallow pan. Spoon over 2 tbsp water and sprinkle with the vanilla sugar. Heat until steaming, then cover with the lid and simmer gently for 5-6 minutes until just tender but still holding shape.
  3. Remove from the heat, sprinkle the frozen raspberries on top and leave to cool completely. Transfer to an ovenproof baking dish, about 1.2l capacity. If the fruit is very juicy, drain off a few spoonfuls and keep as a separate serving syrup.

    Rhubarb and raspberries, a winning combination. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  4. For the topping, put the margarine (or butter) in a bowl and beat in the caster sugar until smooth and creamy. Mix in the flour and vanilla to make a lumpy, sticky mixture, resembling a soft cookie dough. Cover and chill for 30 minutes until firm.
  5. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan oven, gas mark 6). Spoon over about half of the custard in small dollops. Break up the chilled topping into clumps and scatter over the top, covering the fruit and custard as much as possible. Stand the dish on a baking tray and bake for about 35 minutes until lightly golden, bubbling and the topping has merged together. Serve hot or warm with the remaining custard and the fruit syrup.
    With custard; with topping, and the freshly baked crump. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

    A spoonful of comfort: hot crump pudding. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Chocolate tart (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Chocolate tart. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Only a few days ago, in my last post, I had the feeling that spring was on its way. But only one day later, down came the snow once again. In fact, as I go to post this piece, it’s very white outside.  At times of despair, a “cheer-me-up” pudding is called for to help me get through the rest of this dreary month, and what comes to mind most naturally? Chocolate, of course!

This is a simple recipe with only a few ingredients. I don’t usually buy out of season fruit, but I made an exception this week and bought some rather delicious looking strawberries. Best of all, they tasted pretty good too. Of course you can top your dessert with any fruit you fancy, or simply leave it plain. I also added a sprinkle of my favourite toasted raw coconut flakes on top, just before serving. Depending on your chocolate taste-buds, use however much of the darker variety you prefer. Enjoy!

Serves: 8-10

  • 140g plain gluten-free, dairy-free granola, finely crushed
  • 50g coconut oil
  • 200ml canned coconut milk
  • 200g dairy free plain chocolate
  • 100g 90% cocoa extra dark chocolate
  • 1 to 2 tsp good quality vanilla bean paste
  • Fresh fruit and toasted coconut, optional, to serve
  1. Grease and line an 18cm spring-form cake tin. Put the granola in a bowl. Melt the coconut oil and mix into the granola until well incorporated.
  2. Press into the bottom of the tin using the back of a spoon and chill whilst preparing the chocolate layer.
  3. Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan. Break up the chocolate and add to the pan. Place over a very low heat, and stir occasionally until melted. Cool for 10 minutes, stir in vanilla paste to taste and then pour over the granola base. Leave to cool, and then chill for about an hour until firm.
  4. Carefully release from the tin. Peel away the lining paper and transfer to a serving plate. Top with fruit and coconut if using.
Finished with a coconut topping. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
One slice is never enough. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Nian Gao – sticky rice cake for Chinese New Year (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Happy Chinese New Year! Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I discovered this sweet treat for the first time last year. The texture is soft and gelatinous, a bit like Turkish Delight. It is teeth-janglingly sweet, so a little goes a long way, but the rich, treacly flavour is strangely addictive. I dare you to try it.

To achieve the right texture, you do need to use the right ingredients, so you may need to make a trip to a Chinese supermarket or research online suppliers. However, good news: there are only four ingredients, and one of those is water! You must use glutinous rice – a fine white powder, full of starch (and don’t worry, no gluten!) – I have tried this with ordinary rice flour and the texture was grainy and quite solid. The brown sugar you use is up to you; the depth of colour and flavour  of the finished cake will depend on how dark the sugar is. This year, I used coconut sugar and the result is, as you see above, very dark, glossy and treacly. The only other ingredient is coconut milk, and I use the canned variety.

Once cooked and cooled, Nian Gao is traditionally cut into slices, dipped in egg and pan-fried until lightly golden all over. It is served with red and gold decorations for luck. I’m not an egg lover, so I don’t do the frying part; I eat the cake about an hour after cooking, just as it is. Lovely.

Glutinous rice flour. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Other than the ingredients, you just need a couple of tins or dishes, lined with baking parchment, to cook the mixture in, and a steamer for cooking.

Lined 10cm diameter tins for Nian Gao. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Makes 2 x 10cm cakes (serves 3-4)

  • 100g brown sugar
  • 100ml water
  • 100ml canned coconut milk
  • 100g glutinous rice flour
  1. Line 2 x 10cm tins or dishes with circles of baking parchment – you will need to crease the paper to make it sit snuggly inside. Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and heat, stirring, until dissolved. Raise the heat and simmer for 5 minutes until lightly syrupy. Cool for 10 minutes then stir in the coconut milk.
  2. Bring a steamer to the boil, or you can use a saucepan of water fitted with a steaming compartment. Reduce the water to a simmer.
  3. Sift the rice flour into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Gradually pour and whisk in the sugary milk, until well blended, and the mixture resembles a smooth pancake batter.
  4. Divide the batter between the 2 tins or dishes, and arrange in the steamer. Cover loosely with a sheet of baking parchment and then put the lid on top. Leave to cook in the steam for 30 minutes until firm and glossy, like set, thick custard.

    Preparation and cooking Nian Gao. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

5. Remove the cakes from the steamer and leave to cool for 10 minutes, then take out of the tins and place on a wire rack to cool. If you’re going to present the cakes, you might like to leave them in the parchment and tie with red ribbon. A flake of gold leaf on top gives the perfect finishing touch.

This is how I like my Nian Gao, still slightly warm, cut up into small chunks, and served with fresh fruit. Happy Chinese New Year!

My favourite way to serve Nian Gao, with fresh mango. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Moroccan mint tea jellies (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Fresh mint and Moroccan tea-set. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

Mint tea is something I enjoy everyday, usually in the afternoon as an uplifting brew and sometimes, after dinner as a “digestif”. The refreshing taste of mint makes it the perfect herbal choice for this time of year, after over-indulging on rich food, and for anyone looking to make healthier choices for the new year.

I’ve been to Morocco a couple of times and loved the experience. I brought back the tea-set above from my first trip almost 30 years ago. The country’s cuisine is one of my favourites. If you have mint tea made by the locals, it is served piping hot and mouth-tinglingly sweet, which seems utterly contradictory when the air temperature is so warm, but it seems to work and, the restorative powers of a glass or two are amazing.

Moroccan mint tea is made with green or Indian tea and loads of fresh mint. I prefer white tea as I find it has softer tannins. If you don’t want the caffeine hit, you can make the jellies using a couple of peppermint infusion sachets or bags, but do add the fresh mint as well for the extra fresh flavour. I have reduced the sugar to keep it healthy, but you don’t have to add it at all. The recipe can be also be made using traditional gelatine if preferred – 4 leaves would be sufficient.

Makes: 4 small glasses

  • 2 white, green or Indian tea bags
  • A good handful or a small bunch of fresh mint, washed and shaken dry
  • 1 sachet Vege-Gel (I use Dr Oetker)
  • 60ml sugar syrup – see below
  1. Put the tea bags in a heatproof jug with all but 4 sprigs of mint. Add freshly boiled water to the 350ml level on the jug and leave to steep for 5 minutes. Strain the tea into another jug without squeezing the tea bags, and leave to one side. Meanwhile, put a mint sprig into each of 4 x 125ml tea glasses or heatproof dishes.

    Mint tea jelly preparation. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  2. Pour 200ml cold water into a bowl and sprinkle over the Vege-Gel. Stir well until dissolved. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat, stirring, until just boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in the mint tea and sugar syrup.
  3. Leave the tea jelly mixture to cool for 20-30 minutes before pouring into the glasses to cover the mint – this will help stop the mint sprigs discoloring. You need to work with the jelly mix whilst it is still warm – it sets quite quickly as it cools. Leave to cool completely, then chill for at least 1 hour before serving. If you are making a real tea-based jelly, it will turn slightly cloudy no matter what setting agent you use. Herbal tea bags will give a clearer set.
Moroccan mint tea jellies. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

To make your own sugar syrup: put 350g granulated sugar in a saucepan and over pour over 600ml water. Heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to the boil, then simmer without stirring for 10 minutes. Leave to cool. This syrup stores well in a cool place – just pour into a bottle and seal. It is a useful base for adding to ice creams, sorbets, fruit salad syrups and of course, cocktails!

Baked coconut apples (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Late September harvest Lord Derby cooking apples. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

It seems like a long time ago since I picked all these apples from the aged tree in my garden. I still have plenty, stored in a fridge in the back kitchen, and every now and then I bake something suitably fruity. My apple store makes the perfect “turn-to” choice when the fruit bowl is running low, and cooked apple is so very comforting when it’s cold outside.

This variety of cooking apple, Lord Derby, is not particularly tart or exceptionally flavoursome but it retains texture when cooked which makes it the perfect choice for baking. I have often eaten the smaller ones like a crisp eating apple and they taste rather like a Granny Smith.

My recipe this week is a very simple dessert which tastes as good warm as it does at room temperature. I often bake a batch to have for breakfast accompanied with coconut milk yogurt. Delish 🙂 Add ground cinnamon or cardamom for a more seasonal flavour. If you don’t like or can’t eat coconut, vegetable margarine (or butter) is fine to use, and replace the coconut flakes with your favourite nuts or seeds, or use dried cranberries for a fruitier alternative.

Makes 6 – 8 servings

  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 750g cooking apples
  • 75g coconut oil, melted (if you are not dairy-free, unsalted butter works well)
  • 50g Demerara sugar
  • ½ – 1 tsp ground vanilla pod (use a clean, old pepper mill/grinder and put chopped up dry vanilla pods inside – it works so well ground over fruit for baking)
  • A handful of raw coconut flakes
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan oven, gas mark 4). Line a large shallow baking dish with baking parchment. Pour the lemon juice into a mixing bowl and half fill with cold water.
  2. Peel and core the apples. Cut into thick wedges. Put the prepared apple wedges in the lemony water and mix well – this will help keep the apples from discolouring too much. Drain the apples and blot dry with absorbent kitchen paper.
  3. Arrange the apple wedges on the baking tray and brush all over with the coconut oil. Sprinkle with the sugar and vanilla.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes, turning halfway through. Sprinkle with coconut flakes and continue to bake for a further 20 minutes or until tender and lightly golden. Best served warm with the cooking juices spooned over.
Steps to making baked coconut apples. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
Freshly baked coconut apple wedges with vanilla. Image: Kathryn Hawkins


Apple crumble cake (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Lord Derby cooking apples. Images by Kathryn Hawkins

A couple of weeks ago, I picked a bumper crop of cooking apples from the old tree in my garden. I have no idea how old the tree is, but it’s gnarly and interesting to look at, and each year produces large, bright green apples with a slightly tart taste. The variety is called Lord Derby. The apples keep their texture when cooked and are perfect for thinly slicing and layering in a deep filled apple pie or peeled and quartered for a tart tatin. Kept in the cool and dark, this variety of apple stores for about 3 months – until about Christmas-time.

This is one of my favourite apple recipes. It keeps well if you can leave it alone, and becomes more cake-like as time goes on. Serve the cake hot or cold, for pudding or with coffee. I guarantee you’ll love it!

Serves: 10-12

  • 225g vegan margarine ( or lightly salted butter if you prefer),  softened
  • 165g + 2 tbsp Demerara sugar
  • 1 tsp natural vanilla extract
  • 350g gluten-free plain flour (such as Dove’s Farm)
  • 10g gluten-free baking powder (such as Dr Oetker)
  • 500g cooking apples
  • Juice 1 small lemon
  • 1 tbsp cornflour
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 50g thick milled oats
  • 1 tsp icing sugar
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan oven, gas mark 4). Grease and line a 5cm deep x 23cm round, cake tin. In a mixing bowl, beat the margarine with 165g sugar and the vanilla, until well blended and creamy.
  2. Sift the flour and baking powder on top and bring together to form a crumbly mixture. Press about two-thirds evenly into the base of the tin to make a smooth, thick base. Prick all over with a fork and bake for 20 minutes until lightly golden and slightly crusty.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Put the lemon juice in a bowl. Thinly peel and core the apples, and chop into small pieces. Toss in the lemon juice to help prevent browning. Drain away the excess juice and toss in the cornflour and cinnamon.
  4. Spread the apple evenly over the baked base. Mix the oats into the remaining crumble and spoon on top, making sure all the apple is covered. Sprinkle over the remaining Demerara sugar. Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch.

    Preparation of apple crumble cake. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

If you want to serve the cake as a pudding, leave it to firm up for 15 minutes before removing from the tin; otherwise leave it to cool completely and enjoy cold. Dust lightly with icing sugar just before serving. Enjoy!

Homemade gluten-free apple crumble cake. Images by Kathryn Hawkins



Rhubarb and custard ice lollies (gluten-free)

My final rhubarb harvest of the year. Image copyright: Kathryn Hawkins

Another sign this weekend that summer is fading fast, I picked my final stems of rhubarb for the year. Rather than freeze it for later use, I decided to cheer myself up and make a batch of delicious rhubarb and custard ice lollies. Here’s the recipe.

Makes: 6 x 100ml lollies

  • 250g prepared rhubarb stems, washed and chopped
  • 75g granulated sugar
  • 6 tbsp water
  • 150ml ready-made (gluten-free) custard – at least double the sweetness of your usual custard (you need the extra sugar to prevent the custard from freezing too solid and icy)
  • 150ml double cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  1. Put the rhubarb in a shallow pan with the sugar and water. Heat gently, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved and the rhubarb is beginning to steam.
  2. Cover and simmer gently for 7-8 minutes until soft and collapsed. Remove from the heat and mash with a fork. Leave to cool completely. If preferred, blitz in a blender for a few seconds to make a purée.
  3. Mix the custard with the cream and vanilla paste, and chill until required.
  4. Using a long-handled teaspoon, divide the rhubarb between 6 x 100ml ice lolly moulds. Pour in the custard mix and then marble the 2 layers together a little using the spoon or a skewer.

    Assembling rhubarb and custard ice lollies. Image copyright: Kathryn Hawkins
  5. Place the lolly moulds in the freezer for 1 ½ to 2 hours until semi frozen, then push a wooden lolly stick into the centre of each. Put back in the freezer for at least 2 hours until frozen solid.
  6. To unmold, dip the lolly moulds in very hot water for a few seconds, and then pull out by the stick. Serve immediately or pop back in the freezer on a tray lined with baking parchment until ready to serve.

    Rhubarb and custard ice lollies. Image copyright: Kathryn Hawkins