Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal

(...or, "look, crumble for breakfast - but it's healthy!")

Sometimes I think that recipes shouldn't be allowed to tell you how many people they're supposed to serve. I wonder who those portion-control fascists are, that believe they have the right to dictate to us exactly how much of a glorious pan of food we are legitimately allowed to dole out to ourselves and devour with a clear conscience. I wonder why we allow ourselves to trundle on in this Nineteen Eighty-Four style existence, nonchalantly turning a blind eye as the food police worm their way into all aspects of our lives. No longer are we allowed to eat one of those big packs of sushi for lunch; no, the packaging tells us "One serving = half a pack" and then proceeds to blare out those guilt-inducing red and orange traffic light symbols that mean we couldn't enjoy scoffing a whole pack even if we tried, because those garish warning colours are now forever imprinted on our retinas, basically indicating that a single mouthful of the other half of the packet will send our blood sodium levels skyrocketing into stroke-inducing territory, and our arteries to immediately clog with lipids and refuse to let anything important - like blood - past.

Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but I do have a point, I think. Recipe serving guidelines are totally arbitrary, given that it's impossible for them to cater to the hugely diverse variation of appetites in our population. One of those packs of gnocchi you can buy in the chilled section of the supermarket ostensibly serves three or four; I once lived with a boy for whom it was merely a component of his lunch (the others being bacon and pesto).

My biggest irritation comes from those recipes that make wildly outrageous and vague claims like "serves 4-6". What does that EVEN MEAN? "Serves six normal people but four MASSIVE BLOATERS - if you only get four portions out of this luscious lasagne or sizzling stew, prepare to feel really crap about yourself, fatty"?

Yet I have to admit that I, too, conform to the pressure to tell the world how many people one of my (utterly fabulous) recipes will serve. 

And I'm ashamed to admit it, readers, but...

...sometimes I lie.

For example, my recent rhubarb crumble cheesecake. Incredible. Astounding. A work of pure creative genius. In a moment of mendacity I had the nerve to tell you that it serves six. Except this is a purely hypothetical and an estimate totally lacking in any factual foundation, because the first time I made it, I ate over a quarter by myself. 

So should I assume that all my readers share my rampant and sometimes indecent desire for that luscious menage à trois of cream cheese, rhubarb, and buttery crumble, and tell them that the cake serves four? Or should I - as I did - realise that I'm generally the exception to the rule and can cram far more dessert down my oesophagus than any normal human being should, and therefore give my serving estimate with that in mind?

The perils of recipe writing.

But really, there is nothing more disheartening than picking up a nice lunch-to-go from the chiller aisle of a supermarket (well yes, that is disheartening in itself, but read on for what's even worse), thinking it looks just right, size-wise, for the current black hole of starvation you're feeling in the pit of your stomach, and then seeing "serves 2" on the packet, or the nutrition information for "One serving (half a pack)". Firstly, is this just some sick ploy to make us all even more obese? Because I'm pretty sure no one in their right mind is likely to eat half a sandwich or salad or box of sushi for lunch and be able to leave the rest sitting on their desk or in the office fridge without it plaguing them, haunting them, and eventually driving them to crippling, dribbling despair that results in them clawing their way across the office floor with sweat pouring from their ears as they try to resist the repellent force-field around said lunch item that forbids them eating the whole thing.

The same goes for puddings. I picked up a lovely-looking sticky toffee pudding in Tesco the other day. Rustic. Gooey. Vaguely home-made looking, though that was clearly just clever marketing and it had actually been lovingly created by the mechanical hands of a piece of factory equipment. In China. It was packaged in one of those foil trays with a cardboard lid, like you get for takeaways. Thinking it'd be just perfect for me and the boyfriend, I was about to put it in the basket.

I should have done. Should have just done it. Got it over with. Thrown it in the basket and never looked back. 

But for some reason I glanced at the packaging (one thing you must never do: look at the nutrition information for a sticky toffee pudding), and lo and behold, there it was. The dreaded words. 

"Serves four".

Yeah, I thought. Four people who really hate life. Four children, maybe. Or four birds. 

I had to put it back. As much as I'm trying to resist the tyranny of the serving guideline fascists, I realised in that sad and sticky moment that I am their slave. They will always rule me. Always make me feel guilty about the sizeable amount I'm able - no, scratch that - I need to eat for lunch. Always make me cringe at the capacity of my stomach to squirrel away anything combining butter and sugar in very uncouth amounts. I hate them.

Anyway, you're probably wondering where this rather vitriolic diatribe came from. The reason I began this post in this way is that the recipe I'm going to tell you about today, by the wonderful Heidi Swanson (writer of the superb blog 101 Cookbooks and author of the inspirational cookbook Super Natural Every Day), has inflicted on me a similar sensation of unpleasant gluttonous guilt. The reason being that under the recipe I am going to tell you about, she writes these ominous words: "Serves 6 generously, or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread".

I can eat the whole thing in three helpings.

Which makes me equivalent, in stomach-expansion terms, to either two or four people. 

Which makes me, quite frankly, disgusting.

I can't help it.

This recipe is utterly incredible.

For good reason, it's become a widespread food blog classic, frequently popping up in different guises on the internet; I'd wager a large proportion of all the bloggers out there have given it a go at some point, either in its original form or adding some variation of their own. Heidi Swanson is a genius; I always marvel at the originality and creative flair of her recipes, and this is a case in point. It's simple but totally addictive and wonderful.

The original recipe uses bananas, sliced and used to line a baking dish, over which you scatter blueberries and then a mixture of oats, nuts, cinnamon, sugar (or maple syrup), salt and baking powder. Over this you pour another mixture of milk, egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. After a final scattering of more nuts and blueberries, it's ready to bake (salivating yet?). In the heat of the oven, the milk soaks through the oats and makes them moist and tender underneath, while the top sets to a crispy, crunchy crust. The juice from the fruit bubbles up around the crust, leaving those classic gooey, sweet, crispy edges so beloved of things like crumble, cobbler and pie.

It's basically a crumble, but without the flour or (most of) the butter. Soft, sweet fruit; crunchy nuts; gooey, chewy topping. I've made the banana and blueberry version three times now. Heidi's original recipe suggests walnuts, but I much prefer to make it with pecans, which are one of my favourite nuts and work so well with bananas. Walnuts I find a bit too bitter. 

Anyway, this is unbelievable. You'd never have thought such a simple idea could be so divine. I'd heartily recommend the banana and blueberry version, but I had a load of lovely Yorkshire rhubarb lying around so decided to try a version with that instead. I swapped the pecans for almonds, the vanilla extract for almond extract, and the bananas for chunky pink sticks of rhubarb. These softened in the oven, releasing their tart-sweet juice and perfuming their coating of oats with its syrupy goodness. 

I guess the reason this dish has won such a devout following is that it's basically a template for your mind and your stomach to run wild with. Change the fruits; change the nuts; change the vanilla to something else. Its basic make-up is something that cannot be beaten, an irresistible contrast in textures and flavours. Above all, it's wonderful breakfast or brunch food, designed to set you up for the day and still be healthy while tasting decadently like dessert. It also reheats well, so if you want to make it for just you (do it! DO IT!), you can keep it in the fridge and warm up portions in the microwave. It's actually even better after a couple of days, when all the flavours have mingled together. 

So I'm sorry, Heidi, but I really do question your suggestion that this could serve up to twelve people. It's just too damn good.

Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal (serves...er.....I'll go with four big breakfast fans)

(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)

  • 400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 4 tbsp vanilla sugar (or caster sugar) 
  • 200g blueberries
  • 200g rolled or 'jumbo' oats (not instant oats)
  • 60g almonds, roughly chopped
  • 60g brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 475ml milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tbsp melted butter
  • 2 tsp almond extract
  • 3 tbsp flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the rhubarb over the bottom and toss to coat in the vanilla/caster sugar. Add half the blueberries. [If making the banana version of this dish, omit the sugar - rhubarb needs it because it's quite sour, but banana doesn't].

Mix together the oats, chopped almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. 

In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and almond extract.

Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the rhubarb and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the blueberries and the flaked almonds.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

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.

Five things I love this week #3

There's a definite autumnal feel to my 'five things' this week; that much is evident from the muted beige tones of these photos. After a wonderfully warm October, I think I'm finally ready to embrace the onset of autumn, and all the delicious produce it brings with it. 

1. Wild mushroom and truffle risotto. I've been craving risotto ever since I had a beautiful starter at the Yorke Arms last week: truffled partridge boudin with ceps and carnaroli rice. The rice was a gorgeous risotto-like concoction, heady with the musky fragrance of truffle, the rice still with a little bite to it, creamy and savoury and incredibly delicious. I couldn't ignore my truffle/risotto cravings any longer, and succumbed with this lovely recipe. 

It's a standard risotto to which I added chopped chestnut mushrooms when frying the onion and garlic; I also used soaked porcini mushrooms and added their soaking water to the chicken stock used to plump up the rice. The risotto is finished off with some pan-fried girolle and shiitake mushrooms (shockingly expensive, but a nice little luxury, and so much more interesting to eat and look at than standard mushrooms), a drizzle of truffle oil, lots of lemon thyme leaves and a hefty grating of parmesan. Savoury, umami-rich wonderfulness. 

2. Pumpkins and winter squash. It's easy to just pick up the knee-jerk butternut when planning winter squash recipes, but the other day I discovered these beauties at the farmers market. I think the pale blue one is a Crown Prince squash; the others I'm not too sure about. 

I cut them all into chunks (risking life and limb and a hernia in the process; who needs a gym when you can spend an evening hacking your way through an unyielding orb of orange?) and roasted them with olive oil, salt, pepper and lots of chopped fresh rosemary. They softened into intensely flavoursome, sweet, fudgy deliciousness. Their flesh was much more dense and full-flavoured than your standard butternut squash, while the skin went beautifully dark and caramelly. 

I served them alongside roast partridge (recipe to come) and also mixed them with some couscous, feta and cherry tomatoes for a salad. Winter squash are great with anything salty, like bacon, feta or goats cheese. The possibilities are pretty much endless. I'm definitely going to seek out different kinds of squash in future (and perhaps an axe to chop them with). 

3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.

4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.

5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.

While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.

Rhubarb preserves

Astrid from Paulchens Foodblog is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging this week, and once again I am going to go a little crazy over rhubarb. Still struggling to get through the enormous bag of the stuff given to my mum by a friend (the rhubarb and ginger cake made very slight inroads), I decided the most appealing option remaining was to preserve it in some shape or form. It wasn't quite gorgeously pink and slender enough for bottling, so I went down the jam and chutney route. It's been a while since I've made jam or chutney, but I do enjoy the wonderful alchemy of putting a load of apparently disparate ingredients (raisins, vinegar, onions, rhubarb, spices) in a huge pot and stirring away with a giant wooden spoon until they have merged together into a harmonious, spreadable delight. It makes me feel rather like a Victorian housewife.

I've never attempted either rhubarb jam or chutney before, but I decided to make both. Largely because I already have so much chutney (people just give it to me as a present - I'm not sure what exactly there is present in my constitution that screams "GIVE ME VINEGARY PRESERVES", but there must be something - not that I'm complaining) that I'm going to need to purchase either an entire pig or a kilo of cheese to go with it, and also because I've just run out of my beloved homemade fig jam and need a substitute. I am doubtful as to whether anything will match the sheer deliciousness of that jam, but surely if anything is going to, it will be rhubarb, one of my favourite ingredients.

I set about the chutney first, because it takes longer. I wanted ginger in there, for a fiery kick and also for its affinity with rhubarb. I wanted raisins, because I love the way they plump up in a preserve and add a lovely textural contrast. I wanted apple, to add another fruity flavour to the rhubarb, and I wanted brown sugar because I love its caramel notes. In they went, along with copious amounts of red wine vinegar, chopped red onions, rhubarb, salt, and curry powder. Adding curry powder is an idea I picked up from googling chutney recipes - it's easier than adding all your own spices in small amounts, and it adds a great spicy aroma. I would have put mustard seeds in there too, convinced we had a small bag of them in the larder - I had seen them before recently, and could visualise their location - except neither I nor my mum could find them anywhere. We practically dismantled the larder in search, but they were nowhere to be found, and now I am convinced I am losing my mind. You know you're too obsessed with food when you start hallucinating mustard seeds.

I let all of that bubble away happily, and set about making jam. Again, I used fresh ginger, and also the juice and zest of two oranges. I also put some ground ginger in there too, for extra heat, a lot of sugar, the rhubarb, and the juice of a lemon to help it set and to take the edge off all the sugar. Neither the jam nor the chutney looked the most appetising of things when they were finished, being rather brown and stringy, but it's all about the flavour, and the jam I tested was very nice. I haven't tried the chutney, as I need to let it mature for three months first, but it smelled rather delicious. I felt an immense sense of satisfaction as I spooned the finished preserves into their little jars, sealed them, and labelled them. My inner home economist is placated, and now all I need is to make a loaf of bread to eat the jam with. 

I bottled this jam and chutney in a mixture of Le Parfait and normal jam jars, so I've given roughly the number of normal jam jars it will fill. This depends on your jars, though, so have a selection sterilised and waiting for the finished preserve. If you can only half-fill one, just keep it in the fridge and eat it first!

Rhubarb and ginger chutney (makes about 6-7 jars):

1 kg rhubarb, cut into lengths
500g red onions, roughly chopped
4 cooking apples, peeled and roughly chopped
400g raisins
60g fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped
300ml red wine vinegar
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp mustard seeds (if you actually have some, and are not just hallucinating)
2 tsp salt
400g muscovado sugar

Boil the onions, ginger and vinegar for 10 minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the rhubarb, and cook for about 15 minutes until the apples have softened. Stir in the rhubarb, and simmer gently for about an hour, possibly two, until it has all softened and formed a thick brown mass. You should be able to run the spoon down the centre of the pan and leave a momentary gap between the two halves of the mixture.

Pour into hot sterilised jars while the mixture is still very hot, then cover with waxed discs and seal. Leave for at least three months to mature before eating.

Rhubarb, orange and ginger jam (makes 4-5 jars):

1 kg rhubarb, cut into short lengths
Juice and zest of 2 oranges
50g fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped
1 tsp ground ginger
700g granulated sugar or jam sugar
100g muscovado sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Place all the ingredients in a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring to make sure the sugar doesn't burn. Lower the heat and simmer gently for an hour or two until the jam has thickened. To test it, put a plate in the fridge until cold, then spoon a little jam on top. Leave for a minute, then run your finger through it - it should wrinkle.

Spoon the hot jam into sterilised jars, cover with wax discs and seal.

Adventures with a KitchenAid mixer #3: sticky rhubarb cake

I came back from Italy a few days ago to find an enormous bag of rhubarb in our kitchen. Enormous. There must be at least three kilos of the stuff in it. I will spare you my favourite spiel about how much I adore rhubarb and proceed to describe how I turned this back of green and pink stalks into one of the most delicious cakes in existence, with the help - naturally - of my beloved new KitchenAid stand mixer. Because this rhubarb is later in the season, it lacks the slender, elegant pinkness of its champagne cousin, and therefore isn't entirely suitable for a simple poaching or roasting treatment. This cake is a great and pleasantly rustic way to make the most of rhubarb that needs a little more doing to it than a simple scattering of sugar.

First, the cake batter. This is a simple mixture of brown sugar and butter, creamed together before adding yoghurt, eggs, ginger and self-raising flour. I was pretty generous with the ground ginger, because it goes so well with rhubarb and also with brown sugar. I've made this cake once before using sour cream instead of yoghurt, but I decided to try yoghurt because a) the sour cream I found in the fridge was interspersed with thick veins of furry blue mould and b) because yoghurt is a rather healthier substitute and I am still feeling vast after my trip to Italia.

The result is a rather thick batter that smells and tastes incredible. I think it's the tartness of the yoghurt that, coupled with the brown sugar and ginger, provides the most wonderful balance between sweet and sour. It goes into a tin, and then it's time for the rhubarb. Of course, making the batter requires no more effort than putting things into the bowl of the KitchenAid and switching it on. I'm still getting used to having my cakes mixed in a fashion that requires no hands-on effort from me.

Having been spoiled by early season rhubarb, hacking my way through these rather thicker and tougher stems was a novelty. I nibbled a bit of one out of interest, and it was rather like eating a lemon. I quite like the way this kind of rhubarb is green in some places and pink in others; it's an unusual colour contrast and for some reason reminds me of sticks of rock. Though I have never eaten or in fact closely observed a stick of rock. I sliced the rhubarb into short lengths, and arranged it on top of the cake batter.

In retrospect, I think it would be better to slice the rhubarb into longer lengths and arrange them horizontally rather than vertically with the cut sides facing upwards. I was in the mood for making patterns, though, so I arranged the pieces in concentric circles, having a sneaking suspicion that when I removed the cake from the oven they wouldn't look nearly so neat. I was correct. The ends had sort of frazzled in the heat and it looked a bit dry. Fortunately, the next step is designed to rectify any such issues in the most delicious way imaginable.

Ginger syrup. Water, sugar and ground ginger boiled until sticky and fragrant. The perfect partner to tart rhubarb, the syrup goes over the top of the cake once it has had a while to cool. I made some holes in the cake before I poured it over, in the style of a lemon drizzle cake. There was a lot of syrup left over, even though I completely drenched the cake in it. It soaks into all the cracks between the rhubarb and the batter, leaving a gorgeous glistening finish and a superbly moist cake. It also seeps into the pieces of rhubarb, softening and sweetening their astringency.

I love the look of this cake; it's very rustic, with its scattering of rhubarb sticking up at odd angles, but also intensely inviting because of the way the syrup shines wickedly over the surface, hinting at promises of sugary goodness to come. Cut into it, and you're rewarded with an incredibly moist crumb with a slight sourness that balances perfectly with the rhubarb and lashings of sugar. The ginger also marries perfectly, preventing over-sweetness. The best part is the top layer where the syrup has soaked down into the cake. Words cannot express just how satisfying and simply delicious this is. Add some vanilla ice cream, and you have dessert heaven. It's best eaten warm but keeps well for a few days too.

Sticky rhubarb and ginger cake (makes a 22cm cake):

75g butter, softened
250g brown sugar (light or dark - I used light)
300ml natural yoghurt
2 eggs
2 tsp ground ginger
300g self-raising flour
400g rhubarb
100g caster sugar
1 tsp ground ginger

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 22cm springform cake tin.

Cream the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer. Add the yoghurt, eggs and ginger, and mix well until combined. Fold in the flour - you should have a smooth but fairly stiff batter. Pour the batter into the cake tin.

Chop the rhubarb into short lengths and scatter over the top of the cake, as neatly or as messily as you like.

Place in the oven and bake for an hour and a half. If the top starts to brown too much, cover with foil. Remove and leave to cool.

Make the syrup by mixing the caster sugar and ginger with 100ml water. Bring to the boil and bubble until thickened and syrupy. Use a fork to poke some holes into the cake (try not to go all the way through to the bottom), then drizzle the syrup over.

Serve immediately with creme fraiche, yoghurt, or vanilla ice cream.

Bottled rhubarb

This week Rachel from The Crispy Cook is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I've found an exciting new way of using one of my favourite ingredients.

There are some ingredients so beautiful and exciting that they always put a spring in my step on the journey back from the market to my kitchen. Blood oranges are one; really fresh, glistening mackerel is another; gorgeous jade-green, slightly squat Williams pears, with their promise of fragrant, sweet juice; dark aubergines, plump, glossy and black like beetle eyes. But probably my favourite is rhubarb. Spring rhubarb: bright, almost obscenely pink, poking out of my bag like sticks of rock. It's even better when the leaves are still attached: the contrasting bright green and pink is slightly mesmerising. I just love this vegetable, and am always looking for new ways to use it.

I'm also keen to use it while it's this lovely: as the season goes on, home-grown rhubarb turns tough, dark green, and woody. It needs a lot more sugar, and doesn't have the delicate flavour and colour that works so well in desserts. It's fine hidden under a thick, crumbly pastry crust or a buttery crumble topping, but isn't ideal for topping a snow-white pavlova or mixing into an orange roulade. A couple of weeks ago I bought a kilo of the pink stuff and put it in my freezer, to satisfy any rhubarb cravings that will inevitably arise over the coming months. But when I spied a heap of gorgeous, pale pastel rhubarb at the farmers' market the other day, and realised we have no more space in our freezer at home, I turned to another method of preservation: bottling.

I remembered an article in the Guardian a year or so ago about bottling rhubarb, and needed no further prompting, especially as we have a supply of these beautiful Le Parfait jars at home. I've preserved lemons in them before (great in Moroccan cooking), and they are just too pretty when filled with fruit to sit behind a cupboard door - my preserved lemons sit next to my bed on the windowsill. Ideal if I ever wanted a midnight snack of mouth-puckeringly sour, salty lemon flesh.

I've also bottled fresh apricots before - they are another ingredient I'm absolutely obsessed with when they're in season. I can't get enough of them: they go on my porridge (simmered into a thick, jammy compote with a cinnamon stick and some dates), on tarts, in pies and crumbles, all through the summer until they disappear and I'm left pining for them. They're one of the few fruits that you can't find all year round in England; unlike plums, they aren't imported all year, usually coming from France or further afield in the summer and then disappearing.

The technique for bottling fruit is simple: make a sugar syrup, then pack the fruit in the jars and pour it over. Then you have to vacuum-seal the jars (see below), but that's it. It is, in my opinion, a better method of preservation than jam-making, because the fruit retains its shape and flavour rather than collapsing into an overly sweet sticky mass. That said, I do love making my own jam and chutney as well, but I usually reserve it for things like apples that are in plentiful supply, rather than treasured rhubarb or apricots.

All I did for this was make a sugar syrup, cut the rhubarb into lengths and soak in the syrup overnight, then sterilise the jars (in the oven, though you can also do it in a pan of boiling water or a dishwasher), pack in the rhubarb, bring the syrup to the boil and pour it over. I then vacuum-sealed the jars by closing the lids, but not tightening the metal clasp, placing them in a low oven, and cooking for about 50 minutes before closing them. You can test the vacuum seal on this type of jar by unclasping the metal bit - if the lid stays tightly on, you know it's worked. To be honest, I'm not sure this step is essential - when I bottled apricots I didn't bother, and they were still delicious several months later when I came to eat them.

That's it, really: beautiful jars of gorgeous pink rhubarb, ready to extract and use in desserts and compotes whenever you fancy. I'm going to try and wait before opening my first jar, but we'll see how long that resolution lasts. I already have an exciting rhubarb cake in my mind. And how gorgeous do these jars look? They'll make a fine addition to my bedside windowsill, and a much better potential midnight snack than a preserved lemon...

Bottled rhubarb 

It's difficult to say how many jars this will fill. Your best bet is to sterilise several jars of different sizes, and use a combination to ensure the rhubarb is tightly packed. Mine filled a 1 litre jar and a 500ml jar. See the Guardian article for tips on sterilising and vacuum-sealing jars: this is the method I used, and it worked perfectly, but you can also use kilner jars. You can also double, triple, or halve the quantities as you wish.

1 kilo spring rhubarb, cut into short lengths
400ml water
180g caster sugar
Le Parfait jars (a total of about 1.5l capacity)

Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Bubble away for a few minutes, then pour over the rhubarb. Place in the fridge, covered, and leave to soak overnight.

Sterilise your jars by running them through a dishwasher, or washing in hot, soapy water then placing in the oven at 160C for ten minutes, or boiling for 10 minutes in a large pan. Make sure when you take them out of the oven/pan that you put them down on a chopping board or something - if they go on a cold surface they can crack. Sterilise the rubber rings from the jars by pouring boiling water over them.

Remove the rhubarb from the syrup and pack it tightly into the jars. Bring the syrup to the boil, and pour over the rhubarb so it just about covers it. If you don't have quite enough syrup, top up with boiling water fresh from the kettle.

Close the jars and replace the rubber seals but don't clip them down. Put the oven to 110C and place the jars on a baking sheet with some newspaper underneath in case the contents leak in the oven. Put in the oven and leave for 50 minutes. Remove and clip down the metal clips. Alternatively, you can clip the lids down and place the jars in a large pan lined with a teatowel to stop them moving around and breaking. Cover with water and bring to the boil; boil for a few minutes then turn off the heat and let the jars cool in the water.

The next day, unclip the metal. If the lid stays on and doesn't pop up, the seal has worked.