Yet again I have got into the habit of concentrating on making savoury food and not spending any time on puddings. One of my aims for the future is to even this out, as although I’m not bad at baking, when it comes to making clever desserts I’ve got a lot of work to do! I just haven’t really got much of a sweet tooth, so will always err on the side of starters and mains, with cheese to finish.
Special occasions are perfect times to make something sweet, and it was for a friend’s birthday that I thought I would give this tart a try. More and more I try to be conscious about using seasonal ingredients, but this year I have been really rubbish at taking advantage of all of the lovely British rhubarb that is available at the moment. I love rhubarb, it is such a flavoursome and versatile ingredient; being great in both sweet and savoury dishes. Even meat and fish such as lamb and mackerel work so well with the tart acidity that comes off it. My favourite use of rhubarb though has to be the traditional rhubarb and custard. I used to love wolfing down those boiled sweets when I was younger, and this tart brings back that same old fashioned flavour. The delicate pastry and Italian meringue also make this a light and refreshing dessert, perfect after a rich and heavy meal.
Tarts like this often take lots of time with all the resting and cooling involved, but it is well worth it for the end result. Pastry always takes a lot of care and lightness of touch but practice makes perfect. Making it always stresses me out as you have to be so delicate with rolling and lining the tins, then making sure that it is not to thick, but also not too thin that it will crack when cooked. But after a few attempts you will be so much more confident with it, and every time I make it I get a better result. The same with the custard, which takes concentration and patience so that it is slowly cooked down to the right texture without scrambling.
Each element of this tart uses techniques that are great to learn and can be used in many other dishes. Once you master making pastry, custard and Italian meringue the sky is the limit with what you can create.
For the shortcrust pastry:
120g butter, at room temperature
100g icing sugar
pinch of salt
225g plain flour
2 egg yolks, whites kept for the meringue
2 tbsp cold milk
For the rhubarb:
1 kg british rhubarb, trimmed and peeled of woody bits
150g caster sugar
1 lemon, juice only
For the custard:
4 egg yolks, whites kept for the meringue
65g caster sugar
15g plain flour
100g ground almonds
1 vanilla pod
A few drops of almond extract
250ml whole milk
100ml double cream
For the Italian meringue:
400g caster sugar
7 egg whites (6 from the eggs used above and 1 extra)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Makes a tart to fit a deep 25cm non-stick tart tin.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC
To start make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar together in a food processor until light and pale in colour. Add the flour, salt and egg yolks and pulse a few times until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs, Pour in the milk and pulse again a couple more times. Tip the mixture out onto a clean surface and push the mixture together until it just forms a dough. Wrap with clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest for an hour.
Once the pastry has rested take it our the fridge onto a floured surface, and roll out to a square that is slightly bigger than the tin and a couple of millimetres thick. Flour the rolling pin and roll the pastry around it and unravel over the tin, very gently tucking into the corners. If the pastry is really short it might break up a little, and can be patched up with some extra pieces. Make sure it is all sealed and even all the way up the sides. Scrunch up a large piece of baking parchment, then use it to line the pastry. Pour baking beans on top of the parchment to evenly line the bottom, then put in the preheated oven for 6 minutes. Carefully remove the baking beans and top piece of parchment and brush the part-cooked pastry with a little egg white. This will help seal the pastry and stop any cracks from forming. Put the uncovered case back into the oven for another 5-8 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Cut the trimmed rhubarb into 3 inch pieces and scatter evenly onto the bottom of some large baking trays. Sprinkle over the caster sugar and squeeze over the lemon and toss to combine. Put in the oven for about 10 minutes then check - the thickness of the rhubarb will determine how long they take. If they are not quite cooked return to the oven for a couple of minutes until they have a little give when touched. Remove from the oven at this point - they will continue to cook as they cool. Set aside until cold.
To make the custard, beat the eggs with the sugar until pale in colour and well combined. Add the cornflour, flour, almond flour and extract and mix well again. Set aside. Pour the milk and cream into a medium saucepan along with the split vanilla pod. Bring to just below boiling then remove the vanilla and slowly pour the mixture into the egg and flour, whisking all the time. When well combined return back to the pan and put on a low-medium heat. Whisking continuously, cook slowly until the custard is very thick. Remove from the heat then pass through a fine sieve. Pour into the cooled tart case and spread evenly with a palate knife. Allow to cool, then refrigerate for at least an hour.
Once the custard has set arrange the rhubarb pieces over the top to cover. Return to the fridge while you make the meringue.
Now make the Italian meringue. Put the caster sugar into a small saucepan and just cover with water. Put onto a high heat. Pour the egg whites into a large bowl and whisk with a handwhisk until light and foaming.
When the sugar reaches 115ºC take it off the heat. Working quickly, turn the whisk up to a medium-high speed and slowly trickle in the hot sugar until fully combined. Turn the whisk to a high speed and continue to mix for another 10 minutes or so until the meringue is glossy and light. Spoon a little of the meringue onto the top of the tart and smooth over. Put the rest of the meringue into a piping bag and working from the outside in, carefully pipe little swirls. Once covered, use a blowtorch and quickly brown the outside of the meringue. Keep refrigerated until you serve.