'Somehow I was never told that rhubarb was good for me, so I grew up loving it. I loved its beautiful rose-pink colour, its sharp and surprising flavour, and the way I could trail a spoonful of proper custard through my bowl of rhubarb and admire the patterns I made.'
My childhood encounters with rhubarb weren't quite as 'romantic' as those praises sung by Ms Alexander in the para above, for my Hungarian parents neither grew rhubarb nor ever cooked with it. Actually my first taste of rhubarb was in the 1960s in the front garden of a cottage in Berry Street, which was where my best friend lived.
My best friend at the time was a lass named Sandra (which was pronounced sAHn-druh by her Cockney family... yes, do please say it out aloud: sAHn-druh). Anyhoo, Sandra's mother grew gooseberries and rhubarb in her Berry Street cottage garden, and often served roast beef with peas, gravy and Yorkshire pudding, followed by chocolate blancmange which was served in pretty glass dishes. And sometimes she'd make stewed rhubarb too. These things seemed quite exotic to this ten year old's taste buds, which were, understandably, more accustomed to the Magyar palacsinta and paprikás csirke.
Sandra and I would often stand on the path and snap rhubarb stalks fresh from the flourishing crowns in the garden (discarding the poisonous leaves, of course). Then we'd munch and crunch on the sweet/sour rhubarb sticks until we'd managed to extract all of the tart juice. We loved to eat freshly picked goodies in this way. I remember one day Sandra's mum had to pop out to do some shopping and we were supposed to be minding Sandra's little brother, who turned out to be 'a right little perisher' and he shoved a tiny Cuisenaire rod far up inside his left nostril. I swear we were only out in the back garden briefly, picking gooseberries, if memory serves me right. And boy, didn't we get a 'right telling off' when Sandra's mum got home to a screaming toddler with a snotty blood nose. But then that's another story.
Several decades later, rhubarb is still a favourite and, while I haven't managed to grow it successfully for several seasons now (I always seem to kill it with too much kindness, or fertiliser!), I love to cook with it and have several rhubarb recipes for pudding, crumble, ice cream and jam in my repertoire that I would like to share with you in the fullness of time. This one, however, is just a little more special and tastes so exquisite, dear readers, that I could barely wait to publish my post. I've created the recipe based on a dessert enjoyed at Lark Hill Winery. It will sit beautifully as a sweet on your Christmas table, or served as a stunning finish to any meal.
Over the ten years that I co-owned the cooking school, I watched many chefs making Sabayon and Zabaglione (the Italian version), including the esteemed chef, teacher and cookery writer, Diane Holuigue. The key with making this custard-like sauce, I learned, is the constant whisking of the eggs, sugar and alcohol over barely simmering water, until it thickens, doubles in size and reaches the 'ribbon stage'. Ms Holuigue says that the mixture should 'poach' just enough to thicken, and a true Sabayon must be served warm and should not be made too far in advance or reheated.
A couple of points to note with my recipe: *. I had on hand some nectar-like cumquat-infused brandy that was leftover from my brandied cumquats and feel this added a lovely depth of flavour to the Sabayon. Incidentally, you can substitute fruit juice for the alcohol, if you wish. I also had Redbelly blood oranges in the fridge, thanks to my citrus grower friend, Len Mancini. Similarly, I think the blood orange zest added a unique flavour to the poached rhubarb, but you can use plain orange zest with excellent results, too.
VANILLA POACHED RHUBARB WITH AMARETTI AND SABAYON
For the stewed rhubarb:
500g rhubarb stalks, washed, chopped into 2-3cm lengths
100g light muscovado (or light brown) sugar
zest of one blood* orange, finely chopped
1 vanilla bean, scraped
For the Sabayon:
4 free range egg yolks
2 tablespoons vanilla-infused caster sugar
25mls brandy that has been infused with cumquats* (or perhaps use some Grand Marnier, Madeira, or sherry)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
4 tablespoons crushed Amaretti biscuits per serve
Combine the water, sugar, the vanilla bean with half its scrapings, and blood orange zest in a saucepan, and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the pieces of rhubarb, lower the heat and poach gently until the rhubarb is soft. Do please take care not to let the rhubarb over cook, as you don't want mush for this dish. Set aside and allow to cool.
Meanwhile crush the Amaretti biscuits to crumb stage with a mortar and pestle. Or place them into a freezer bag and pound gently with a rolling pin. Set aside until you are ready to serve.
To make the Sabayon, combine the egg yolks, caster sugar and remaining vanilla bean paste in a stainless steel (or copper) bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water, preferably with the base of the bowl not touching the water. Add the brandy (fruit juice, sherry or other liquid), whisking constantly for ten minutes or more, until the mixture thickens to a pale, light but thick and fluffy consistency. Take care not to let it boil or scramble. You will know when it's ready, as it will leave a ribbon trail when you lift the whisk out of the bowl.
To assemble the desserts, spoon a small amount of the poached rhubarb with the syrup into the base of your serving dishes or wide brimmed stemware. Sprinkle a layer of crushed amaretti biscuits over the top of the rhubarb and then a 'dollop' of the warm Sabayon (meaning 1-2 tablespoons). Finish with a sprinkle of muscovado or brown sugar over the top and serve immediately. Serves 4.
Note, the rhubarb can be poached ahead of time and tastes just as good the following day. The Sabayon must be fresh.
The process in pictures...
Based on a dessert enjoyed at the Lark Hill Winery restaurant...
This dish will sit beautifully as a sweet on your Christmas table...
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Tell me, dear readers, do you have fond memories of rhubarb (or custard, or gooseberries, or indeed Cuisenaire rods!)?
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.