Wednesday, 25 April 2007
Rhubarb is beginning to be in the shops where I live, but unfortunatly the weather precludes anything as delicate as tarts or fools. Rhubarb crumble seems to be what is called for: a sharp enlivening interior with an almond crumble to protect against the cold mornings. It is one of those classic british dishes which sits happily on the divide between winter and spring. The tartness of the rhubarb is as likely as anything to wake us from our winter sloth, but the crumble stops it feeling too delicate and leaves that comfortably full sensation. Little wonder then that is often a mainstay of school dinners, and hospitals, a sort of institutionalised food which seems to have made a reasonably recent comeback. Not that those that cook haven't been cooking it for all these years, but rather it is suddenly acceptable as a potential dinner party dessert.
Its a strange thing, the dinner party dessert phenomenon. Chocolate roulade, mousse or profiteroles did the cookbook rounds not all that long ago, and there was a spun sugar phase in which little twiddles of caramel accompanied almost anything on a plate , very often a mint leaf to add insult to injury. But now we're going back to comfort food, in an effort to be homely and nuturing. So its perfectly acceptable to serve proper puddings, sticky and debecked with sauce and cream. Indeed there are a ridiculous quantity of recepies for crumble doing the rounds, often photographed emerging from the aga. I imagine that summer will bring us a sudden deluge of fruit fools and eton mess. Now I love this food, but it is simply crazy the way it gets written about, not cooked. Its ironic that while we're all reading about homely aga induced hazes of baking and stewing and preserving, we're eating ready meals.
How much better it would be if we thought of cooking in terms of techniques, not recipes.
The basic componants of a crumble are fruit which must be cooked, and a rough pastry. A good one requires you to vary the time the crumble spends in the oven depending on the fruit used, and a liberal hand with the butter in the pastry. Butter, remember, not margerine or soya nonsense.
I like to use oats in my crumble, I think they give more texture and crunch. This may not be strictly accurate, but it is very good, and also avoids the problem of the crumble on top getting too soggy from the cooking fruit. The butter should be just rubbed into the oats, almonds and sugar, until it starts to form crumbs. depending on the kind of fruit you are using you may want to stew the fruit first with a little water. Rhubarb, however, has more than enough water, and if it isn't too woody it should be fine to just chop into cm think chunks and pop in the baking dish. Mine was more advanced in years than it really ought to have been, so I stewed it briefly beforehand. On top of this you want to sprinkle the crumb, then put to bake in a high oven. The time it takes will depend on the thickness of the crumble, and the fruit used. But a good indication is a golden brown exterior, and oozing fruit juices bubbling along the edge. If your crumble is particularly large, or deep, it is a good idea to poke the middle with something to check the fruit is cooked all the way through.
Lastly a few very gentle suggestions for pairings of fruit and topping.
In general, more gutsy, autumnul fruit such as plums go very well with hazlenuts. Lighter, more delicate fruit such as rhubarb or pears goes better with almonds. And of course there are some fruit which can stand up to anything, apricots, for instance. Similarly with choices of sugar and flour: more autumnal fruits can generally take a bit of muscavado sugar and lots of oats, but I wouldn't recommend it with peaches, where you want a very light, almost shortbread like topping so ground nuts and white flour should make up the bulk to the crumb, and I'd use a more refined sugar.