Rhubarb is a strange food. Really strange, I mean, because we can only eat the ruby red stalks. The giant leaves of the plant are poisonous. It’s difficult to picture the circumstance in which someone looked at a rhubarb plant and said, “Well the leaves will kill you, but maybe the stalks won’t.”
On top of that, the stalks are sour. Beyond sour-candy sour. When I was a kid, I thought it was really cool to be able to go outside, pull off a stem and bite down into a stringy, juicy tartness that instantly shriveled my tongue. Now that I’ve grown up some, I don’t know how on earth I managed to eat rhubarb raw.
Which is not to say that I don’t like rhubarb. In fact, I am quite fond of it when it’s been cooked in some manner. Apple-rhubarb pie, for instance, is superb. Stewed rhubarb goes wonderfully with some kind of white or yellow cake. It’s all in the contrast of tart and sweet, as if it were the original sour candy.
At my parent’s house, we have a few rhubarb plants growing. They look like a sort of low, mounded shrub with giant leaves. In the spring, we harvest the stalks. We eat some of them, and freeze the rest. That’s where my supply right now comes from: the work we did last year cleaning, chopping and freezing rhubarb.
For anyone who doesn’t have a backyard source, I’ve seen it at farmer’s markets and occasionally in a larger supermarket. It doesn’t look like much. Just some straight, unbranched stalks as thick as my thumb laid on a tray and wrapped in plastic. The ends might be a little shriveled, but trim those off, soak them in water and they’ll plump up easily.
So why all this talk about an obscure and probably out-of-season herbaceous plant? It comes back to the first signs of spring. I’ve seen a robin right outside my front window, but I’m still waiting for the snow to melt and the world to turn green. Rhubarb is a spring flavor, and I am ready for seasons to change. Pulling out the frozen rhubarb and cooking it up into rhubarb fool is my personal way of encouraging spring to hurry up.
Rhubarb fool is an old English desert. It’s primarily made of tart fruit and whipped cream. The recipes I’ve seen suggest that the original fool was made with another obscure fruit, gooseberries.
By all accounts, those little guys are indecently tart, green and difficult to cook. Rhubarb is much easier. It cooks down into a lovely compote. With the addition of sugar and some orange juice, its tartness becomes palatable.
Add to that layers of whipped cream, also sweetened with a touch of sugar, and dessert begins to have an old-fashioned look. I like the simplicity, and the wonderful balance of flavors and textures.
Tart rhubarb against the sweetness of sugar. Cooked fruit mixed with the lightness of whipped cream. I like to think of it as message to weather. Spring, come soon.
3 cups rhubarb
¼ cup sugar
zest and juice of one orange
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
Combine rhubarb, sugar, and orange in a saucepan. Bring to a low simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cook until rhubarb softens and loses its shape. Taste to determine whether you should add a little extra sugar—rhubarb is plenty tart. At this stage, you don’t want any extra water, so watch for a fairly uniform texture. It should resemble a fruit compote.
Remove from heat and cool. Fifteen minutes in the refrigerator should do it, as long as you have a potholder to put down under the pan.
Next is the whipped cream. I like to do this from scratch. The cream and tablespoon of sugar go into a large mixing bowl. You can use regular sugar, but often you’ll bite into an individual sugar crystal. My solution to this is to run the sugar through a sifter, which makes them a little more fine-grained. Hence, superfine sugar. I tend to whip cream by hand, but since that can be a long and tiring process, you can also use a handheld electric mixer.
The cream should also be refrigerated. Fool is meant to be a fairly cold dessert.
Fold about a cup of the whipped cream into the rhubarb mixture. This should lighten it up just a little bit.
Next, you can do one of two things: switch between layers of cream and layers of rhubarb in serving cups, or just barely fold rhubarb into remaining cream. The first can be prettier, but the second will provide a more evenly-distributed flavor.
Serve fresh, or return to refrigerator for about an hour.
If you plan on making this ahead of time, you can do so a day ahead. Merely leave the cream and rhubarb separated until right before serving.
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