A few weeks ago, as I was dropping off Big Brother at his nursery, I noticed one of the mums - who lives on a farm - handing over a big bag of freshly picked rhubarb to one of the assistants. I pricked up my ears and when I heard her say (as I expected she would) that it was over-running her garden and she couldn't get rid of it fast enough - I jumped in with an offer to take some off her hands. I love rhubarb. My grandmother grew it in her back yard and so when I was growing up, I had an endless supply. As a result, I hate paying for it. Why should I buy something that grows like a weed and should be in every garden? (No, I haven't planted any yet: that is the next step in my master plan to exploit my poor friend who has the luck to live on a farm...I'll see if she wants to free up some space in her garden by giving me a plant.)
When I next saw the farmer's wife (who is actually the wife of the head of the local agricultural college if you want to be exact) she asked what I had done with it. And I had done as I always do: stewed it with sugar until it made a glossy red compote and spread it thickly on my morning toast every day for a week. (As an aside, rhubarb stewed with sugar is only half a Weightwatchers point for 75 g, which is plenty for a piece of toast.) She thought this sounded disgusting. Which is funny to me, because my first (and last, as far as I am concerned) experience of an English rhubarb tart truly was disgusting. It managed to be simultaneously slimy and woody - and so sour that I am puckering again just remembering it. There are some aspects of English cooking I will never understand.
I thought of this when I began planning a big barbecue combining a housewarming (which we never held when we moved) and a birthday party (because my 40th was spent nursing a newborn every two hours in a post-birth hormonal haze). I would make a rhubarb dessert that would show this woman exactly how amazing rhubarb could be when stewed with sugar. And I would have shown her too, if she had shown up.
Actually, the dessert was a huge hit. Even the Critic, who, because of experiences with the aforementioned English Rhubarb Tart, has always maintained that he doesn't like rhubarb - loved it. The mousse came out a bit sweeter than I would normally make it, but this complimented the strawberries perfectly. Topped with unsweetened whipped cream, the parfait was creamy and sweet but with a bite of ever so slightly sour strawberry. It really was a perfect early summer dessert. Or pudding, as they say over here.
The Perfect Rhubarb Parfait (serves 6-8)
Making the mousse for this parfait was, I'll admit, a bit of a job. However, the result is so good that I'll be making it again - and often. It makes a very classy dessert for a dinner party and can be made up the day before and assembled in five minutes when you are ready to serve. If I were to compete on Masterchef Goes Large, this would be my dessert.
4 cups chopped rhubarb
2 1/4 c sugar (450g)
1 tsp gelatin or 1 sheet
2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 quart/500g strawberries
Cook the rhubarb with 1/4 cup of water and the sugar in a saucepan until soft. Strain, reserving the liquid. Purée the rhubarb in a food mill or food processor while you reduce the liquid to 1/2 a cup or until your patience runs out, whichever comes first. (The recipe I adapted from my Fannie Farmer cookbook called for cooking it down to half a cup but my patience ran out somewhere around the cup and a quarter mark.) Soften the gelatin in two tablespoons of cold water and then stir it into half a cup of the hot syrup. (Note to self and any other birdbrains out there: do NOT lick the spoon you have been using to stir boiling syrup without letting it cool first. It will hurt.) Stir the gelatin mixture into the rhubarb. Whip 1 cup of the whipped cream until stiff. Fold into the rhubarb gently. Spoon into wine glasses or martini glasses and refrigerate at least six hours.
Before serving, wash the strawberries and cut them in bite-sized chunks. Whip the cream. Sprinkle the berries over the mousse and top with whipped cream. Enjoy.
Note: the parfait looked very pretty in a champagne flute, but I think that next time I'll probably use martini glasses. You really want to have a bit of cream, a strawberry and mousse in every bite and this is easier to achieve with a wider brim on the glass.