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Rhubarb and Custard

Updated: Feb 24

Sometimes you’ve just got to scratch that itch… Every now and again I just get a hankering, a random craving from deep within, a taste for something specific that I just can’t shake… a bowl of rhubarb and custard!


A bowl of thick custard with batons of poached rhubarb on top, drizzled with poaching liquor.

There is a timeless partnership of sweet and sour, acid and fat, encased by a floral pungency that is so prevalent in food heritage that we all have a taste memory of it in some guise or another. Whether it’s a lemon meringue pie, Eton mess, blackcurrant fool or a lemon posset, to name but a few, this partnership of opposites in finely tuned balance delights and tantalises the simplest of palates.


As Spring stretches out into May rhubarb takes on a new lease of life. The light pastel pink, tender stemmed forced variety heralds the beginning of Spring, so perhaps it is fitting that Summer is beckoned by the tall dark crimson stems of rhubarb free to grow uncovered and exposed to whatever the weather may bring.


forced rhubarb stems on a wooden board
Early forced rhubarb with pastel pink stems & pale curled leaves

Rhubarbs flavour takes on new depth and subtleties as the days lengthen, but as the flavour gains strength so too does the acidic hit. This lip tingling, mouth furring tartness overpowers any intricacies to be discovered on the palate.


Taming the tartness takes a culinary champion, a hero that brings balance, freeing the flavour… custard! The quintessential British pudding champion. This unctuous comfort food envelops the sharp edges allowing the floral fruity freshness to shine.


stems of rhubarb sitting on the wooden workbench with trimmed leaves
First of the outdoor & uncovered rhubarb in May

Enough waxing lyrical about the flavourful delights to be uncovered, cooking this hug in a bowl from scratch is where the itch will get scratched. It’s not just in the eating but also in the process where I find comfort. A mindful pursuit to get lost in, melting away the clutter and noise of life that so often closes in around us. Finding a focus frees the mind of distraction, allowing thoughts to run free. A meditation with a sweet treat as reward.


Anticipation is a powerful force, heightening emotion and intensifying the enjoyment. Simply having something to look forward can brighten the darkest of days so break out the scales, grab a pan and hone a knife, this is an overnight affair.


stems of vibrant crimson rhubarb

The day before… poaching rhubarb.

Keeping that vibrant colour and mellowing the sharp bite with a touch of sweetness is the aim, which begins with a fragrant liquid to both cook and marinade the rhubarb in.


Water and sugar, in the ratio of 3:1, with some choice aromatics in enough quantity to cover the rhubarb.


Recipe for 500g rhubarb.

450g water with 150g of sugar.

2 bay leaves lightly bruised to release the oils,

1 tbs of juniper berries & a whole star anise.


In a pan with a lid, gently dissolve the sugar in the water then bring to the steam, allowing the aromatics to infuse.


Meanwhile prepare the rhubarb. Cut into batons no more than 5cm long (so it is not too tough to eat) or chunks no smaller than 1cm (to prevent the fibres falling apart) depending on your preference of course.


With the poaching liquid steaming submerge a little rhubarb at a time then cover with a lid for no more than 2 minutes. Cooking in batches maintains the temperature of the liquid, adding too much rhubarb at a time will simply reduce the temperature. Ideally the liquid should be 80 – 84°C.


Remove from the liquid and sit in a container which has a lid.


Once all the rhubarb is cooked allow the liquid to cool, then pour into the container, covering the rhubarb, and leave in the fridge overnight with the lid on.


In the morning the rhubarb will be a vibrant pink throughout, as will the poaching liquid.


My choice of bay, juniper and anise complements the elements of rhubarbs flavour profile that I enjoy the most, a slightly vegetal and floral fruitiness. This is not to say other aromatics are taboo, there are many others that will season very nicely. Vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom and even peppercorns all work well.


The remaining poaching liquor makes a fabulous jelly and can be reduced down to make a syrup for a plethora of delightful recipes or a simple condiment. What every you do don’t throw it away!


stems of vibrant crimson rhubarb

Today… custard & enjoy!

A classic English custard is much like and other custard from around the world, milk (or cream or both) thickened with egg yolks. Simple. The consistency and cooking methods vary only to suit the desired end result, from baked set custards to a thin pouring sauce.


For me, with rhubarb, it has to be a thick pouring consistence reminiscent of Bird’s powdered custard that was so prevalent throughout my childhood and a staple cupboard ingredient at my Grandparents house. Thin enough to blob over Granny’s apple pie but thick enough to form a skin if left for just a moment to cool. For this there is only one way to make it… in a pan and on the hob.


First things first, grab a pudding bowl to enjoy the hot custard immediately with the cold rhubarb.


For every egg yolk use 60g of milk and 40g of double cream with around 15g of sugar. A 4 egg quantity will serve 4 light eaters.


Bringing the milk and cream to temperature allows any aromatics to infuse their flavour but also dissolves the sugar when poured onto the egg yolk mixture. Begin by scalding the liquid then turning off to infuse for the time it takes to make the egg mixture. I add 1 crushed Tonka bean and a few bruised bay leaves.


Separate the eggs and put the yolks into a bowl large enough to hold the quantity of liquid you are infusing. Keep the whites for another day and another recipe. Add the sugar and beat to a paste with a spatula.


Pour the warm infused milk and cream over the egg yolks and sugar while stirring with the spatula. Everything is well mixed return to the pan.


A little preparation here will save a split custard! Place a sieve over a bowl or jug large enough to hold the finished custard.


Over a gentle heat bring the custard up to a heavy steam. The yolks will gradually thicken the sauce but take just a moment to overcook turning the mixture into sweet scrambled egg. The key for beginners is to keep the mixture moving! Work a spatula around the edges, bottom and centre of the pan with a continuous and repetitive motion that leaves no part of the pan where the custard could reside, stick, overcook or burn. A gradual figure of eight motion works very well.


To be precise egg yolks begin to thicken at 65°C and set at 70°C, so somewhere around the 66°C mark is pretty good.


Without the aid of a thermometer I rely on my senses. Feel the spatula moving more freely across the bottom of the pan as if it were suddenly lubricated. The appearance of the custard at the surface will become more viscous, lightly coating the sides of the pan and spatula. Steam thickens and a slight tremble can be felt as the spatula wades through the setting custard.


It is at this point speed becomes of the essence. Take the pan off the heat and pour the custard into the sieve, straining out the eggy thread and aromatics.


That’s it. Taste the custard for seasoning, add more sugar if necessary not forgetting that as it cools the sense of sweet will reduce slightly.


A bowl of thick custard with batons of poached rhubarb on top, drizzled with poaching liquor.

Now to scratch that itch! Pour a generous portion of still warm custard into a bowl before adorning with batons of cold poached rhubarb. Spoon over some of the poaching liquor, grab a spoon, sit back and enjoy!


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