Now, I'm a firm believer in not messing around with the classics. The saddest thing I have ever eaten was a 'deconstructed rhubarb cheesecake'. I had actually awaited it with great anticipation. Quite naturally, I thought this 'deconstructed' business would essentially mean 'more biscuit base', so I was definitely game for that. In fact, I was basically imagining a huge bowl full of biscuits mixed with butter, and maybe some creamy concoction alongside. There may have been a bit of salivation occurring.
Imagine my utter horror when I was presented with a shotglass full of rhubarb juice, and another containing a bland white creamy substance with a few stray biscuit crumbs strewn across the top.
I feed the birds in my garden more crumbs than that.
It was utterly, utterly vile. It must have been, because I am still sickened by it eighteen months later, and I told everyone who would listen (i.e. no one) for weeks after the dinner about my horrifying experience.
If you are going to deconstruct something as wonderful as cheesecake, why in heaven's name would you take the BEST BITS and diminish them? Cheesecake should not be presented in a shotglass. The clue is in the name: cake is something that, generally, does not often find itself encased in glass. A bit like...oh yes, cheese. Cheese is also something that should not be found in this sorry state.
A few weeks ago, Tom from Masterchef tried to present a 'deconstructed lemon tart'. It was met with widespread condemnation and ridicule, drawing such comments as "it looks like he made a lemon tart then dropped it on the floor". In fact, I don't understand how it could have looked like it did without being dropped on the floor. Does 'deconstructed' translate as 'poorly and unsubtly rescued'?
Or just 'guaranteed to dismay'?
I once watched Raymond Blanc, my husband-to-be (apparently he's also quite good at cooking and some people have heard of him) make a deconstructed crumble on his Kitchen Secrets show. It is a mark of how strongly I feel about deconstructed desserts (and about crumble) that even this wonderful man could not tempt me with his bowl full of summer fruits topped with a circular biscuity thing.
That, my friends, is not crumble. Crumble is not a biscuit. Crumble is like a biscuit that you've taken a sledgehammer to, and then baked. On fruit. So it oozes up sumptuous sticky juice around the edges. Bubbling voluptuously. Calling out to be eaten with a scoop of ice cream. Begging to be returned to for seconds, and possibly thirds, and then that thing that I like to call 'fourths' that is generally best eaten with a teaspoon, straight from the pot, pan or dish, after the meal has ostensibly finished and you're just 'clearing up'. With your mouth.
The gist of all this being that classics are classics for a reason. They're awesome. Don't mess with them. Don't put cake in a glass. Don't try and make geometric art out of a crumble. Don't drop your lemon tart and then add some weird coulis and other rubbish to make up for it.
But then what do I go and do? I put cardamom in a treacle tart.
Except I didn't put the tart in a glass. I didn't drop it, nor did I cut it out into a circle. I left it well alone. Apart from that teeny tiny little addition, I stuck with the classic.
And oh, my god. I can't understand why no one has ever done this before.
My thought process for this recipe was as follows:
I really, really, bloody want a piece of treacle tart. Like, now. Sticky and oozing and gooey and dentally suicidal and cringeworthily full of golden syrup. Ooh, I made breadcrumbs the other day and stashed them in the freezer. Definitely an excuse to make a treacle tart - frugality is my middle name. Oh no, wait, it's Frances. Close enough. I also have some awesome rhubarb in the fridge. I reckon they'd go really well together - the sharpness of the rhubarb will cut through that intense syrupy sweetness and also look very pretty on the plate. Hmm...what else could I add? I like to think in trios of flavours, for neatness. Rhubarb and cardamom go well. Would cardamom work in the tart? It could either be sublime or a total failure. But then if you think about it, some of the sweetest desserts and pastries I can think of, namely baklava and other syrup-drenched Middle Eastern sweets, use cardamom liberally, and that combination of intense sugar and citrussy spice is heavenly. Surely it should work. We will see. Time to buy a whole tin of golden syrup, empty it into a bowl of breadcrumbs, add some eggs, put the whole lot in a pastry case, then ring my dentist and arrange for either a filling or false teeth depending on how much of this tart I eat.
I love the look and feel of a treacle tart fresh out of the oven. It's gorgeously golden and satisfyingly spongy, with a lovely burnished rim of caramelised sugar around the edge. It's rustic in the extreme and promises total joy with every mouthful. I would like to sleep on it, occasionally rolling over and taking small bites to soothe me when I have nightmares.
It's also catastrophically bad for you, seeing as it contains an entire can of golden syrup. But you're hardly going to be eating it every day, so who cares. Embrace the syrup. Not literally - it's a nightmare to clean. My camera is covered in the stuff. As, probably, is the lining of my stomach.
Anyway, my gamble paid off. This is the best treacle tart I've ever had. The addition of cardamom is, I have to say, a stroke of genius. Plus I scoured the internet and I've never seen cardamom added to a treacle tart before, so dare I even venture that this might be an original idea? Surely not. But I like to dream, so humour me.
It's sticky and sweet, but the filling doesn't adhere to your teeth because of the eggs beaten into it, which keep it light and almost fluffy. There's the juice of a lemon which, coupled with the citrussy, fragrant cardamom lifts the whole thing into that gorgeous sweet-slightly sour territory that is just so addictive. The pastry is light, crumbly and buttery, balancing everything perfectly.
Add some poached rhubarb on top (not, I should add, served from a shot glass) for a sweet tang and a contrast in texture, and you have one of the best desserts I've ever made, or even eaten for that matter. You don't have to include the rhubarb - the tart on its own is incredible and is perfect eaten with some cold cold vanilla ice cream to counteract its chewy sweetness.
Seriously, I cannot get over how good a treacle tart is with cardamom in it. I want to make it again, just to check I wasn't hallucinating and that it is actually as amazing as I think it is. Actually no, I want to make it again so I can eat the entire thing. It's reminiscent of all those syrupy Middle Eastern pastries, but even better.
I'm a firm believer in not messing with the classics...with this small and sublime exception. At least I didn't drop it and put it back on the plate.
Cardamom treacle tart with poached rhubarb (serves 8):
(Adapted from a BBC recipe here)
225g plain flour
110g very cold butter, cubed
450g can golden syrup
90g fresh breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
10 cardamom pods, seeds crushed and ground to a powder
4 tbsp caster sugar
First, make the pastry. Blitz the flour and butter together in a blender (or rub together with your fingertips) until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the cold water, 1 tbsp at a time, until the dough just comes together. Tip out onto a floured work surface, form into a ball, then roll out to a thickness of 0.5cm. Line a 23cm tart tin with the pastry, letting it overhang the edges a little (you can trim them after cooking - it'll shrink otherwise). Chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Prick the bottom of the pastry case with a fork and line with greaseproof paper. Fill with baking beans/dried pulses to weigh it down, then bake for 15 minutes until turning golden. Remove the beans and paper and bake for another 5-10 mins until crispy.
For the filling, mix together the syrup, breadcrumbs, eggs, lemon juice, ginger and cardamom. Pour into the case then bake for 30 minutes until golden and slightly brown around the edges. Leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar.
For the rhubarb, slice it into 1-inch lengths and place in a small pan with the sugar and a tiny splash of water. Simmer until it just starts to disintegrate. Check the sugar - you might want a little more if your rhubarb is very acidic.
To serve, slice the tart using a very sharp knife, spoon over a little of the rhubarb compote, and serve with vanilla ice cream.