BY NONI CHRISTOPOULOS
A dear friend who grows his own vegetables gave me a big bundle of rhubarb and tells me that the vegetable which we cook as fruit was at one time worth several times the price of opium. The Chinese used the rhubarb root for medicinal purposes to aid digestion over 2700 years ago. It was introduced to Europeans in the 14th Century via the Silk Road and word soon spread that rhubarb cured various bowel and stomach ailments. It was listed as an important item of merchandise alongside items such as silk, satin, pearls, and opium.
Europeans tried to cultivate rhubarb from China on European soil but were not successful in replicating it for its medicinal use, instead as sugar became cheaper (rhubarb is very tart) and more widely available rhubarb became a culinary marvel. I put it to good use and made the following with plenty left over to freeze for future use:
Rhubarb and Custard Cake
- 500g rhubarb
- 50g light soft brown sugar
- 250g unsalted butter, softened (plus extra for greasing)
- 150g ready custard (reserve 3 tbsp and set aside)
- 250g self-raising flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 4 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 250g golden caster sugar
- Icing sugar, for dusting
- Pre-heat oven to Gas 6 / 200C
- Wash and trim the rhubarb, cut into finger-size pieces and place in on a baking tray with the light soft brown sugar and toss together.
- Roast for 20 minutes, carefully drain off any juices and set aside to cool.
- Reduce the oven temperature to Gas 4 / 180C
- Butter and line a 9 inch loose-bottomed cake tin.
- Cream the butter and sugar together, add the eggs, vanilla essence, baking powder and flour and beat until smooth and creamy.
- Fold in the bulk of the custard to the cake mixture.
- Spoon one-third of the cake mixture into the baking tin, add some of the rhubarb, then dot with one-third more cake mix and spread it out as well as you can.
- Top with some more rhubarb, then spoon over the remaining cake mix, leaving it in rough mounds and dips.
- Scatter the rest of the rhubarb over the batter, then dot the remaining custard over.
- Bake for 40 mins until risen and golden, then cover with foil and bake for further 15-20 mins nb it’s ready when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
- Cool in the tin and dredge with icing sugar when cool. Slice and serve.
Rhubarb and Strawberry Gin Liqueur
- 500g rhubarb
- 500ml water
- 200g sugar
- 5-6 strawberries
- Gin (good quality)
Combine first four ingredients in a pot. Simmer, covered, on low heat for 30 minutes, or until the rhubarb is soft. Set the pot aside and let it cool. Strain through a cheese cloth. Measure the resulting liquid. Add an equal measure of Gin. This should make around two litres. Enjoy!
The remainder of the rhubarb I washed and cut into 1-inch pieces and placed into freezer bags ready for future use, it can keep for up to one year in a freezer.
Do not eat rhubarb leaves they contain oxalic acid, which can be poisonous if eaten in large amounts and cause kidney failure. Avoid them, simply chop them off and discard, the rest of the stalk is then ready to use.