Rhubarb and ginger crumble cheesecake

This recipe was featured on ITV's Food Glorious Food in April 2013. I adapted the recipe slightly for the show to make a bigger, taller cake, so have updated this post with the latest version of the recipe (which can also be found in the Food Glorious Food cookbook). I hope you enjoy recreating it in your own kitchen!

Yes, my dear readers. I have gone and taken two of the best desserts in existence , and combined them into one luscious, creamy, buttery, crunchy creation.

I've been wanting to make this dessert since approximately April last year, when I froze the end of the season rhubarb with the express intention of doing just that. You know the stuff - those gorgeous pink stems, such a bright and vibrant fuschia they seem almost unnatural, quite unlike anything that could possibly have sprung up from the dark, dank earth. Sadly those colours don't last - as the season progresses, those stems progressively widen, darken, become stringy and sour. Still delicious, doused in a liberal coating of snowy white sugar, but best quietly hidden beneath a mound of buttery crumble or a blanket of pastry.

I froze the bright pink stuff to use in a dessert that would really allow its colour and natural sweetness to shine. Something pure and white to exaggerate its naturally beautiful qualities. I envisaged swirling it into a simple vanilla cheesecake batter, removing my finished creation from the oven or fridge to reveal a beautiful marriage of pink and cream curled lovingly around each other. Where the idea for the crumble topping came from, I don't know.

Oh wait, I do know. Plain common sense. Why would you NOT put a crumble topping on something?

I literally cannot think of any arguments against it.

I imagined breaking through that delicious buttery crust to reveal the yielding, creamy centre of a cheesecake rippled with tangy, sweet rhubarb. Not only would it taste wonderful, but the colours would be beautiful - the contrast of the snowy white cream against the hot pink fruit, mellowed by the pleasingly muted hue of the cheesecake base and the crumble topping.

I can't believe it took me nearly a year to get round to making this a reality.

This is just one version of a whole range of possibilities based on this theme. I chose to make a baked cheesecake, because I thought the slightly denser filling would marry better with the thick crumble topping - crunchy crumble on top of a quivering, gelatinous mousse didn't seem quite right, somehow.

I made a basic cheesecake mixture with ricotta, creme fraiche, eggs and sugar, adding quite a lot of vanilla because I love vanilla with rhubarb. I roasted the rhubarb in the oven with some sugar, mashed it with a fork to make a compote, then swirled this into the cream. It was spooned over a delightful crunchy ginger nut base (I make my cheesecake bases approximately two times more thick than is normal, because why wouldn't you add more butter and biscuit than required?) and topped with a simple crumble topping.

I say simple...I added some chopped almonds for crunch and used wholemeal flour and brown sugar for a more pronounced flavour, as well as a little ground ginger to complement the rhubarb and the biscuit base. I have to say, this was a great idea - wholemeal flour and brown sugar give it a much stronger 'crumbly' flavour - you can really taste the difference. I think I'll start making all my crumble in this way from now on. Plus you can even kid yourself it's healthy as it's wholemeal (that is how it works, right?)

I wasn't really sure when to put the crumble mixture on top of the cheesecake - too early and it would sink down into the cream cheese and end up ruining everything...too late and the cheesecake would overcook in the time it took the crumble to brown. In the end I removed the cake just over halfway through the cooking time, sprinkled on the crumble and put it back in (quickly, so that it didn't sink).

Somehow (I call it cook's intuition...some, however, may just call it luck), I timed it perfectly. The crumble cooked through to a rich, golden brown, oozing bubbling caramel juices down the side of the tin. The cake was creamy, fluffy and light but held its shape.

Until I tried to cut it, that is. It's quite hard to slice through thick crumble while not making a mess of the yielding mass of cream and fruit underneath...but it's not impossible. Use a serrated knife. No one will care once they taste this.

I was thrilled with how this cake turned out. You end up with something that is part pie, part crumble, part cheesecake. The rhubarb infuses into the cream cheese mixture, turning it a delightful pastel pink colour and lending it a tangy, fruity edge that pairs so well with the mild, sweet vanilla. Then you have the utterly satisfying crunch of the biscuit base followed by the gorgeous crunchy crumble. It's almost like eating rhubarb crumble with cream on the side, but all in one mouthful and with added biscuit.

And what on earth is not to like about that?

Rhubarb and ginger crumble cheesecake (serves 8):

  • 400g rhubarb, cut into 2½cm lengths
  • 4 tbsp water
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 drop red food colouring (optional)*
  • 1 tsp arrowroot mixed with 2 tsp cold water
  • 375g ricotta cheese
  • 300ml half fat crème fraîche
  • 1½ tbsp runny honey
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the base:

  • 60g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
  • 18 ginger nut biscuits, crushed
  • 1 egg white (optional - helps prevent the base going soggy)
  • For the crumble topping:
  • 80g wholemeal flour
  • 40g cold butter, cubed
  • 40g demerara sugar
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 50g blanched almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp cold water
  • Sprigs of mint to decorate (optional)

*The food colouring is useful if you're making this with late season rhubarb (as opposed to early forced rhubarb) which is greeny brown and looks less pretty in the end result. The food colouring helps make it gloriously pink!

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5. Butter a 20cm (8in) springform cake tin.

2. Put the rhubarb into a baking dish with the sugar and water, toss together and bake for 25–40

minutes, depending on the thickness of the rhubarb, until tender. Remove and leave to cool.

3. Meanwhile, make the base. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then mix in the biscuits. Tip the

mixture into the prepared tin and press it down evenly with the back of a spoon. Brush with the

egg white (if using) and bake for 10 minutes, until golden and firm. Set aside to cool.

4. Mash the cooked rhubarb to a purée with a fork. Drain well, then add the food colouring (if using).

Pour in the arrowroot mixture and stir to thicken. Set aside to cool.

5. Put the ricotta, crème fraîche, honey, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a blender or food processor and whiz until combined. Transfer to a bowl and swirl the rhubarb purée through it with a

fork. Don't overmix – the idea is to create pink streaks.

6. Reduce the oven temperature to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 and put an empty roasting tin in the

bottom of it. Butter the sides of the cake tin again, then pour the cheese mixture over the biscuit base. Cover the tin tightly with foil, then place in the oven and quickly pour a jug of cold water into the empty roasting tin. Close the oven door and bake for 30 minutes.

7. Meanwhile, make the crumble. Put the flour and butter in a bowl and rub together until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, ginger and almonds, then gently stir in the water to form small ‘pebbles’ in the mixture.

8. Remove the cheesecake from the oven, discard the foil and spread the crumble mixture over the top of the cake. Remove the tray of water from the oven and increase the temperature to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5. Bake the cheesecake for a further 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Set aside until cool, then refrigerate until needed. Remember to bring it back to room temperature 30 minutes before serving: no one wants cold crumble! Decorate with mint sprigs if desired.

Two seafood dishes, and a crumble

I'd never considered stuffing a squid before. How blind I have been, stumbling ignorantly through life armed with a knife with which to slice these delicate slippery tubes into calamari-style rings. Nigel Slater has opened my eyes to the beauty of squid stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon zest, chopped tomato and anchovies, and served with a red pepper, tomato and chilli sauce. There's something incredibly satisfying about slicing into the soft squid with its salty, lemony interior, with the kick of tomato sauce to bring it all together. It's also a good way, I would imagine, to get squid-haters to eat squid - it doesn't taste too fishy, and the squid loses that rubbery, slimy texture that it can sometimes have if cooked badly in rings. 

To satisfy a recent craving of mine, we had moules marinieres to start. I'd never actually made this - I normally cook mussels with Asian aromatics (lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, tarragon, shallots, rice). This is even easier - chopped shallots and garlic, cooked in butter until soft, to which you add chopped tomato, lots of parsley and a good glug of white wine (OK, fine, a third of a bottle). Throw in the mussels (cleaned and debearded) on a high heat, put a lid on the pan and leave for 3-4 minutes, then dish into bowls. Simple and immensely satisfying. It would make a good main course with a big baguette to soak up the delicious mussely juices, or some potato wedges. Or both.

For dessert, a rhubarb and strawberry crumble. It's a combination I've been told is good (and one of the few exceptions to the rule that you should never cook a strawberry), and it was indeed good - the two go together in a rather surprising way. Not to mention the beautiful pink colour of the juice as it bubbles up around the crumble mixture. 

Autumn fruits and their perfect partners

I was going to start this post by declaring that I am a happier person when both figs and quinces can be found in the market. However, I realise that is not strictly true. I am, in fact, a more anxious person - anxious that their short season will be over before I can exploit them to their full potential. I've already devoted at least two whole posts to the magnificence of such fruits - they seem exotic and otherworldly, somehow, yet both grow quite happily on our own English soil - so will spare you the raptures. Instead, I will write about a meal that did actually make me a happier person, comprising as it did both figs and quinces and ticking another of the "things I want to try with figs and quinces" list. 

I set out for the market intending to purchase a nice fat chicken with which to make a fig and walnut tagine. Unfortunately, lack of said chicken meant I had to compromise. I would go as far as to say that this was in fact infinitely better than compromise - it was improvement. I ended up with a shoulder of lamb on the bone, a cut I don't normally use, preferring to use diced shoulder in a tagine or casserole. However, I figured I could still incorporate elements of the originally intended tagine: I rubbed the lamb with saffron, cinnamon and ginger mixed with olive oil. It went in a hot (240C) oven for 15 minutes and then I turned it down to 160C and let it cook away for a couple of hours. How long exactly I am not sure - as long as it took for me to read a few pages of Gifford's Dialogue Concerning Witches and decide that it was too late in the day to be reading annoying early modern script where all the S's look like Fs.

Next, some couscous stirred up with the seeds of half a pomegranate. The pomegranates I found at the market today are truly fine specimens, infinitely better than the watery, pale pink and slightly bitter versions I've been putting up with so far this autumn. The seeds of these have a real sweet sourness to them and are a beautiful vibrant colour. I also put some crumbled walnuts into the couscous. For the last five minutes of cooking, I put some halved figs into the roasting tray with the lamb and drizzled over some honey. The shredded lamb meat went in with the couscous with the figs on the side. They had turned molten and scarlet, almost the colour of the pomegranate seeds, and went beautifully with the lamb. I'd forgotten how much I love lamb shoulder cooked on the bone; the meat is sublime and so versatile. 

For dessert. something from the new Nigel Slater book, Tender II. This book is enough to bring me to the verge of tears because I don't have Mr Slater's metabolism. There are enough recipes for pies, crumbles and tarts in there to guarantee I'd never see my hipbones again. How he manages it, I really don't know, especially because he recommends serving everything with "cream: thick, yellow, unpasteurised". The photo for the recipe of "soft quinces under a crisp crust" simply looked too good to resist.

Said crisp crust is a mixture of brown sugar, flour, butter, brown breadcrumbs and ground almonds. It is a bit like the pear betty topping I made a few weeks ago; much crunchier and more buttery than a traditional crumble topping, I think it will be my new blanket with which to wrap up warm fruits. The quinces are sauteed into soft, golden tenderness with butter, sugar and lemon juice and then baked under the crumble for half an hour or so. I put a pear in with the quinces just for a difference in flavour and texture. They go rather well together, which makes sense, seeing as they are quite similar in shape. 

I must say, however, that the task of peeling, halving, quartering, coring and slicing four large quinces is enough to mean I probably don't need to do any arm-based weightlifting at the gym tomorrow. Especially with a blunt knife. I can almost see why so many people overlook these fine fruits: preparation is a faff and a half. 

But so, so worth it, however, when you bite into that mouthful of perfumed, buttery, juicy fruit and its crunchy topping, with hints of treacle from the dark brown sugar used and little nuggets of toasted breadcrumb. I might have to make this one again; it is beautiful. As are its colours, which I think look like autumn in a bowl.

So there we have it. Two of my favourite things, and some excellent other things with which to partner them to maximise their full potential. Delicious.

An excuse to get out the blowtorch

(and no, it's not to torch my finals revision in a fit of despair)

Tonight, courtesy of my lovely friend Clare, I had the opportunity to whip out the blowtorch I was given for easter (cook's blowtorch, that is - I'm not into welding or anything) on TWO occasions.
Firstly, I decided to make Shakshuka, a north African dish of (in this version, anyway) sauteed peppers, onions, spices, tomatoes and herbs with cracked eggs on top. It's a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's new cookbook, Plenty. I am having a massive Ottolenghi phase at the moment - I have his other cookbook and simply the thought of it makes me salivate (except not, because that is disgusting). More on that another time though - along with my ode to quinces which I am still intending to do. The eggs were taking a painfully long time to cook - watched eggs never boil - although admittedly it was quite fun watching their gelatinous forms slowly turn opaque in their little cocoon of tomato sauce. Clare had brought round a crumble to have afterwards, and I had the bright (and quite exciting - it takes very little to excite me these days, as my life is basically revision) idea of blowtorching the top to caramelise it. It then also occurred to me that I could cook the top of the eggs faster this way - normally I'd stick the pan under the grill, but someone was using the oven. It was amazing to watch - the surface of the egg sort of puckered under the flame and thickened, and then a little crust of white formed. Childishly satisfying. It was delicious, too - we ate it with warm baguette to mop up all the tomatoey goodness, and the eggs were just runny in the middle. I love sauteed peppers that have gone soft and sweet...add some caramelised onions, and yum.

The crumble, I have to report, was the most delicious crumble I have had in my life - and I am a bit of a crumble fiend (as anyone who has ever seen me rhapsodise over it at formal hall will know, or anyone who has seen me polish off several helpings, despite the two courses that have preceded it). Apparently it was a Nigel Slater recipe, and the reason it tasted so good was "massive amounts of sugar". Well, if tooth decay tastes that good, then I reckon I'll be seeing my dentist fairly soon.

Note the deliciously caramelised, toasted crumbly topping in the picture below...and be jealous that you don't own a cook's blowtorch. My housemates clearly thought I was ridiculous when I got it out of the cupboard...but I am clearly the one laughing now. Except I'm not laughing - I'm clutching my stomach and feeling slightly sick from sugar overload.