To keep up our customer’s interest in our products we like an element of surprise and discovery in our stores.
One of the tools to do so is to give our range of baking a seasonal twist. Sometimes it is an ingredient that moves into the limelight, or the focus falls on an important day in the calendar. These days there is no shortage of products getting a marketing boost at national level. From toast to cupcakes and pies, there’s a day or week of celebration in the calendar. If that is not enough, traditional and religious holidays or something that happens at local level serve as inspiration.
After the dark winter months, it’s delightful to see the snowdrops and daffodils pushing through the garden soil. In the more controlled and sheltered environment of some darkened tunnels and shelters of Yorkshire, something rather more interesting for us bakers has been rearing its heads: rhubarb!
Growing rhubarb in Yorkshire goes back hundreds of years. For the past eight years it has even been celebrated with a Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield. Sadly I missed this year’s event, but it’s one to add to the culinary as well as cultural calendar, especially when combined with a visit to the world-renowned Hepworth Gallery.
Originally rhubarb came from Siberia, but has found a natural habitat in the British Isles (I wonder why?) – especially in the area around Wakefield where now some 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb production comes from. With something so special produced on our doorstep, I’m amazed it is not relished more widely. The French managed to do it with Champagne and likewise the Italians with Parmesan.
In January when it first comes to market the price per kilo is often around the £10 mark and more – and that’s fine for a restaurant which serves it as part of a high-margin dessert. Around the beginning of March, it is usually more competitively priced and it suddenly becomes more attractive as an ingredient for us bakers. Danish pastries, muffins, meringue can all benefit from a bit of springy zing.
At Konditor & Cook we add it as a topping to our almond tarts. The buttery sweetness of frangipane is the perfect companion to the bitter sourness of the rhubarb stems. Incidentally that bitter sourness comes from the sap rising from the roots and turning to glucose in the stems. Forced Yorkshire rhubarb is usually so tender it just needs cutting into smaller pieces then bakes to a lovely pink in the oven.
Rhubarb is a winning combination when combined with crumble and, of course, custard. To make it easier for our customers we pile all that heavenliness in one tart – a sweet pastry case filled with a thin layer of vanilla sponge, then a large serving spoon of vanilla custard spread over, followed by a layer of rhubarb and a generous mount of crumble. Season your crumble with a little ginger, as we do, or follow the tip by Californian chef Mark Miller who adds a touch of roast anise seeds to his crumble. I found this suggestion in the rather excellent and inspirational book The Flavour Thesaurus, by Niki Segnit, a must-have book for all creative chefs and bakers.
For those not so keen on pink sharpness a different pot of gold awaits at the end of the rainbow. For St Patrick’s Day, the Irish national holiday (17 March 17) we are already baking our ‘Black Velvet’ recipe – a moist, stout-based chocolate cupcake topped with an Irish cream frosting and decorated with a chocolate harp. It’s music to my ears.