Rhubarb. Is it a vegetable or is it a fruit? Whatever it is, these bitter stalks are the only thing we can depend on to grow in the garden. Surely this is not enough of a reason to devote my prized weekly column to it, is it? Well, for the sake of keeping my dad (one of my most avid fans who was very disappointed at his lack of mentions so far) happy, it is. My dad has been nurturing two rhubarb plants for a good few years now and this week he’s spoilt them with a new, homemade wooden fence to keep them safe from prying hens. We pretend to care, but I think he sees through it. It’s a very sensitive subject:

“Have you noticed my new rhubarb fence?”

“No…where is it?” (I should point out the rhubarb bed is hidden away somewhere shady you would only see if you went out looking for it).

“It doesn’t matter.”

While I might not show much interest in the day-to-day life of the plant, I am always very excited when it comes to harvest. Last year, Dad made enough rhubarb and ginger jam to last us until Easter. In my defence, I am not as indifferent to gardening as you may think. In a rather weird turn of events, when the wi-fi was down, I ended up catching the last half of Gardener’s World. I’m not sure how it happened but there I was, Friday night, 8pm, in a blanket watching a horticultural programme with a cup of tea. I blame the lockdown. While watching Frances Tophill sow seeds, she mused how gardening brings her a sense of calm and hope. By the time her seeds germinate, grow and mature, who knows where we will be? This is something I could get behind.

Rhubarb Topsy-Turvy Cake

Until recently, I had never made an upside-down cake before, probably because I didn’t study food-tech in the 70s. With my abundance of rhubarb, I have had to find novel ways to transform classic cakes to incorporate it. Since the start of term, I also have dwindling amounts of time on my hands and so can’t, or more correctly shouldn’t, spend it baking extravagant desserts every other day of the week. These two reasons have meant that a quick rhubarb upside-down cake was the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone. But, as I’m turning a classic on its head by binning the canned pineapple slices (although this is a legitimate tweak if you find it easier to obtain than rhubarb), I’ve named it Rhubarb Topsy-Turvy Cake.

Rhubarb tastes absolutely shocking raw. It really is a fruit, or vegetable, I can’t remember which, that must be cooked to be enjoyed. One way to cook the rhubarb is by baking it. Chop two sticks of rhubarb into 5cm chunks and place on a sugared piece of baking parchment in the oven at 180⁰C. Turn them after 5 minutes and leave in for another 5-10 until they are soft around the edges but hold their shape.

Meanwhile, liberally butter a 24cm cake tin, bottom and sides, before tossing a tablespoon or two of sugar around the tin to coat it. This should help the cake to emerge from the tin easily and without blemish. The cake batter is an easy one. 100g of butter or margarine, 100g of self-raising flour, 100g of sugar and two eggs are thrown into a bowl and mixed, all in one. Add a teaspoon of baking powder and you are good to go. If you have a food-processor this should only take a couple of minutes.

Arrange the rhubarb pieces raised side down in concentric circles at the bottom of the tin. Pour over the batter and cook for 30-35 minutes until the top is browned and the sponge is cooked through. This is both a tea-time cake and proper pud if you heat it up and serve with a dollop of ice cream, or custard. Quick and versatile- what’s not to like?

Rhubarb Fool with Oat Biscuits

Fools are another super-speedy and easy dessert you can whip up in no time- with whatever fruit you have. If you haven’t got the hint by now, there is a lot of rhubarb sitting in my fridge (and even more from last year in the freezer) nagging me to use it. But to keep things exciting, despite the monotony of the main ingredient, I’ll be using a different method of cooking: poaching.

Start by, once again, cutting your rhubarb into 5cm pieces. Heat 160ml of water and 100g of sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the peel of a lemon, 15g of chopped fresh ginger and two lemon and ginger tea bags. Place the pieces of rhubarb in the pan and knock off the heat, leaving them to poach in the residual warmth for an hour or so until you are ready to use it.

To serve the fool, whip up half a carton of cream with a tablespoon of icing sugar until soft peaks just form. Add the cream to a bowl with a few pieces of poached rhubarb (they should be flimsy but still intact), any nice biscuits you have lying around and top with a drizzle of the leftover rhubarb flavoured liquid which you could subject to another five minutes of heat to get a reduced, stickier syrup.

I made my own oaty biscuits by melting 75g of margarine, 1 tablespoon of syrup and 2 tablespoons of milk in a pan before mixing in 50g of sugar, 75g oats, 75g of wholemeal flour and a teaspoon of baking powder. These are shaped into oblongs and baked in a 180⁰C oven for 10-15 minutes.

The general concept of a fool, poached or stewed fruit served with cream, is applicable to any soft fruits you may have. As the summer months approach and the strawberries and other summer berries come into season, this will be one to be remembered.

Rhubarb Meringue Pie

Sometimes, some days just don’t go your way. Take last Sunday for example. It began with a lab report that needed to be finished, as always left to the day before it was due. What was meant to be a quick write up became a not-so-quick write up when I realised I had lost all of my data and had to start again. Three hours later I was glad to get in the kitchen for a bit of catharsis. What I didn’t know was that my tribulations were not over yet.

As life is slightly too short to make every component of a meringue pie, except for special occasions, I recommend skimping on the pastry. Shop bought is much less hassle and can wait patiently for you in the freezer. Using a sheet of sweet shortcrust pastry, roll it out until 3mm or so thick. Push this into a tart tin (using multiple small tins seemed a good idea to me at the time), fill with baking beans, and blind bake at 190⁰C for 10-15 minutes while you make the rhubarb curd.

For this, blend two stalks of rhubarb as finely as possible. Strain the pulp to collect the juice, forcing as much through the sieve as you can. Add this to three beaten eggs and 175g of caster sugar in a saucepan over low heat followed by 200g of butter, added bit by bit, stirring patiently until it thickens. Don’t be tempted to up the heat- it will split. Heck, mine split even with my unyielding patience. When, if, it thickens (I managed to rescue mine with aggressive whisking) add to the bottom of the pastry case. Turn down the oven to 150⁰C and bake for another 10 minutes while you make the meringue. I recommend using my trustee meringue recipe, here, but with half the quantities. Pipe or spread this over the top of the pie and bake for at least another 30 minutes.

As I said, everything seemed to go wrong for my pie. After the curd-splitting fiasco, I felt deflated which impeded my meringue making ability- something I have never struggled with before. Having taken it out of the oven, and thoroughly giving up on it, I went on a dog walk to try and forget all about it. Unfortunately, as soon as I re-entered the house I was greeted by the smell of freshly baked failure. With apprehension, I served it to the family who, dare I say it, were still satisfied and surprisingly happy. Failure didn’t taste so bad after all. Maybe lemons next time though?

Oh, and by the way, it’s a vegetable.

Anna McDonald is a second-year Biochemist at Lady Margaret Hall