Rhubarb is nature's way of saying 'cheer up, it's not that bad'.
And my goodness, don't we need it at this time of year. As if the early onset of darkness in the afternoon weren't enough, in the past month the weather here in Yorkshire has decided to throw everything it's got at us. First there was the swift depositing of four inches of snow in a pristine blanket across the city, which but a few hours later had turned to the most revolting Dickensian slush, soaking into my boots and leaving them covered in meandering white salt stains. Then there was the torrential rain only a day later, which mercifully washed away the snow almost as quickly as it had descended. Then there was the gale, which raged for three days and managed, in its ferocity, to move my dustbin a good five metres down the road, to the extent that I thought my neighbours had stolen it. Then the torrential rain returned and this time combined with the gale, to result in the kind of rainfall that makes you abandon all hope of cycling and enables you to justify taking a taxi for 'safety reasons'.
Ridiculous meteorological events aside, it's definitely been a gloomy couple of weeks. The afterglow of a wonderful break skiing in the Alps for my birthday has subsided, leaving me with no vestige of that happy time other than a right toe the colour of a ripe plum and a big toenail that is soon to part company with it. While this is perhaps specific only to me, and not a general January/February gripe, it cannot be denied that these two months are a cruel period in the calendar. You're probably forcing yourself to stick to some awful diet, or abstaining from alcohol, or starting a new fitness regime, or other ludicrous forms of self-torture. Judging by how eerily empty my gym has been over the last couple of weeks, I'm guessing you're not doing too well.
This is why I always think everyone should have cooking as their hobby. It brings you so many opportunities for joy that you'd otherwise lack in your life. I can't count the number of times my entire day has been improved by the find of some beautiful ingredient in the supermarket, the stumbling-upon of some unexpected bargain, or the prospect of cooking a much-anticipated recipe for dinner that evening. I used to be a bit embarrassed by this, but then I realised that I'm lucky. I have little moments of excitement and enjoyment pretty much every day because of my cooking, and I dread to think what a pit of miserable despair my life would be without those. It would be permanently February.
Few things cheer me up more, food-wise, than the sight of beautiful new season Yorkshire rhubarb. This is the real thing, the good stuff. The total antithesis of anything you ever ate at school. The opposite of what people think of when they say 'I hate rhubarb'. The season seemed to start early this year - these slender barbie-coloured stalks were in the shops before the Christmas decorations even came down. They are thinner, sweeter, more tender and of course more beautiful than the rhubarb you get later in the year, which is perfectly fine but isn't going to win any beauty contests.
Now that I live in Yorkshire, I'm surrounded by this wonderful ingredient, and it seems rude not to take full advantage. I've already gone through over a kilo this week alone, making an appearance at the market on several occasions with my arms haphazardly cradling stalks and stalks of it, the hot pink stems sticking out of my bike basket on the way home and attracting several second glances from passers by. Seeing as York is mostly grey right now, rhubarb stands out.
February, month of sadness, is not the time to be going wild with experimentation in the kitchen. It's a time when you want a metaphorical hug from a recipe you just know is going to deliver. You just want to chop a few times, throw something in a dish, spend a minute or two performing the soothing rubbing of cold butter into powdery flour and the stirring in of sugar, oats and spice, then let the oven work away to bring you happiness.
For even more happiness, I recommend watching through the oven door as the fruit juices bubble up lusciously around the sandy crumble crust in glossy, vivid bubbles, oozing stickily between the cracks in the buttery rubble, staining the outside of your baking dish with promises of sugary deliciousness.
So yes, this is a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble. Those stunning pink stalks get tossed with sugar then smothered with a blanket of flour, butter, oats, almonds and sugar. There's a slight twist, though, in that I've added cardamom and orange to the crumble mixture. Crushed cardamom seeds, because their slight citrussy fragrance and exotic perfume works very well with rhubarb (and indeed with most fruits, I think) and also with anything buttery and crunchy. Orange peel powder, to impart a subtle orange richness without the overpowering acidity of zest or juice - rhubarb is quite tart as it is.
I also added a little ground ginger, because its warmth is lovely with rhubarb - and let's face it, we all need a bit more warmth in our lives right now.
Rhubarb, cardamom and orange crumble (serves 4-6):
- 500g rhubarb, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
- 4-5 tbsp caster sugar (depending on how tart you like your rhubarb)
- 160g wholemeal flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- 80g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground in a pestle and mortar
- 2 tsp orange peel powder
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 50g jumbo oats
- 50g flaked almonds
- 2 tbsp cold water
Toss the rhubarb and caster sugar together in a baking dish. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Put the flour in a large mixing bowl and rub in the butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the demerara sugar, cardamom, orange peel powder, ginger, oats and half the flaked almonds. Stir in the cold water to make the mixture turn slightly 'pebbly'.
Spread the crumble gently over the top of the rhubarb and scatter over the remaining flaked almonds. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble is golden and crunchy.