THIS week we’re really making the most of our local produce, and returning to one of our regions finest products, much sought-after across the country at this time of year by chefs and domestic cooks alike: Yorkshire rhubarb.
It’s always been a favourite ingredient of mine, both the larger maincrop stems that will appear later in the year, and the slender, refined, delicate “champagne” rhubarb which is in season right now.
Grown in sheds all across the ‘pink triangle’, an area roughly situated between Leeds, Pontefract and Wakefield, forced rhubarb is a fleeting joy to behold; the almost iridescent stalks ranging from candy pink to deep magenta, topped with a crumpled yellow-green leaf.
It is said that if you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing in their dimly-lit, loamy sheds – there is a faint squeaking noise, a little like someone rubbing a balloon, as the leaves unfurl gradually in the half-light.
All too soon, like baby lambs taken from their despondent mothers, the young rhubarb stems are hoiked from the earth and sent worldwide to those in need of a fix.
The flavour is unique – sweet and tart, with just a hint of the vegetal – rhubarb is, after all, a vegetable, even if that feels wrong – and when paired with a little sugar, a hint of lemon and something creamy or pastrified, real food magic happens.
So this week, I thought of what to do with my box of rhubarb, the stalks laying there in their deep indigo paper wrap, begging to be eaten. And what more fitting pairing for a Yorkshire ‘fruit’ than a classic Yorkshire tart?
A proper custard tart, all yellow and wobbly, dusted with sugar and nutmeg, just neutral enough to provide the perfect foil for a few stalks of tart, slippery rhubarb. And it’s been ages since I made a proper custard tart. I was sorted.
Years ago, whilst doing a little consultancy work for a well-known high street food retailer, I often visited one of their factories over the hill in Oldham.
Now I like going round factories of all kinds; the little boy in me is still always fascinated by large mechanical things, and these days I’m interested how food is made on a commercial scale.
Of all the fascinating machines and production lines, perhaps the most amazing was the custard tart machine.
In a vast room, away from the main factory floor, sits an enormous piece of hardware, a huge oven, through which roll the tarts on a conveyor, never pausing.
A dollop of soft dough (way softer than any pastry chef would dare make!) is pressed into its foil tin, and custard filled to just the right level.
Hundreds of these tins shuffle slowly into the huge oven, and over about 20 minutes are baked into little quivering tarts.
Then, a hi-tech bit of kit delivers a carefully-measured dose of grated nutmeg with laser precision.
It doesn’t always work, and here was the truly astonishing bit: the tarts were then graded according to the neatness of the nutmeg.
A nice central splodge meant the tarts were headed for the big fancy supermarket chains, and as the pattern became more uneven, the tarts headed for cheaper and cheaper stores, until those with little or no nutmeg were simply dropped into bins and disposed of. Criminal!
SO, with that in mind, remember to keep a steady nutmeg hand, as we make our lovely rich custard tart and poach some of the season’s finest local rhubarb.
170g plain flour
100g butter, chilled and diced
1 fresh free-range egg yolk
Pinch of salt
500ml whipping cream
75g unrefined golden caster sugar
9 fresh free-range egg yolks
500g Yorkshire rhubarb, trimmed
100g unrefined golden caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
8” / 20cm Tart tin or pie dish, baking parchment, baking beans
FIRST, let’s prepare the rhubarb. Heat the oven to 150°C/Gas 2.
Cut the stalks into 6cm lengths, and place in a single layer into a non-reactive baking dish (glass or enamel are ideal).
Sprinkle with the sugar and lemon juice, and add a splash of water. Bake for 15-20 minutes, agitating gently occasionally, until you can just push a knife through the stalks.
Allow the rhubarb to cool in the tray – this will cook it to completion. When cooled, place the rhubarb in a container and refrigerate until needed. This is great for all sorts of recipes, or simply stirring into yoghurt. It will freeze well at this stage, too.
To make the pastry, by hand or in a machine, rub the butter with the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add a pinch of salt.
Add the egg yolk, and enough water to bring the dough together. Wrap the pastry and chill until required.
To make the tart, roll out the pastry to about ½ cm thickness. Gently place the pastry into the tart tin, pushing all the way into the corners, and making sure there are no holes.
Allow the pastry to overlap a few inches. Carefully line the pastry case with scrunched baking parchment, and fill with baking beans (a few copper coins work well if you have no baking beans).
Heat the oven to 170°C/Gas 3. Bake the tart for 15-20 minutes until the pastry has set and is starting to become golden.
Remove the baking parchment carefully, and bake the tart case for a further five minutes to allow the base to cook.
For the custard, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together, then add the whipping cream, and mix well.
Strain through a sieve into a pan, and heat the custard gently to blood temperature.
Lower the oven temperature to 130°C/Gas 1. Pour the just-warmed custard into the tart case, and bake for 35-45 minutes, until it’s set and wobbly.
Allow to cool a little, then, with a serrated knife, carefully trim off the excess pastry.
Grate as much nutmeg over the tart as you like, and serve either warm or cool, with a few spoonfuls of the oven-poached rhubarb.