Antidotes for the Haze of the Summer Dog Days
by Maurice Alexander
Image courtesy of MikeGoad on Pixabay
The heat of the dog days of Summer can set upon us breathlessness and spellbound languidity with an appetite for only the lightest and most refreshing dishes. Its an unbroken tradition for myself and several friends to gathering together in the garden sheltered from the unforgiving by the birch trees growing overhead and discuss amongst ourselves the Summer past and the months ahead. The unforgiving heat and the thickness of the air render us incapable of consuming anything but dishes that cool and invigorate to bring us back to life. This year we had rhubarb syrup cream and cream soda floats.
Rhubarb Syrup Creams - Serves 4 to 6
Rhubarb, alongside the pineapple, has one of the most distinctive appearances natural produce can have; long, deeply blushing stalks beneath an evergreen broadleaf hat. They have been long considered a product of yesteryear during the period of the Second World War and the years following wherein a single pink stalk dipped in sugar was served as a dessert. However, rhubarb is experiencing a great resurgence in popularity, becoming an increasingly common as a centrepiece ingredient in burnished pastries and tarts appearing like pink sapphires set in gold.
Other than sharing an aesthetic, iconic look, rhubarbs similarities with the pineapple end. Unlike the spiked fruit from the tropics with its honeysweet interior, rhubarb is incredibly sour, with it having a lower sugar content than carrots and peas. This unappetizing potency is softened with the addition of a generous amount of sugar, and how fortunate we are, as this allows so many desserts to be bejewelled with its magenta flesh.
This tart flavour pairs beautifully with gently whipped pillowy double cream topped, blended together, this heavenly concoction is topped with gleaming pink syrup- a playful indulgence to chill the eater on a hot day.
1kg Rhubarb Stalks
300g Vanilla Sugar OR 300g caster sugar and one tablespoon of vanilla extract
300ml of double cream
Rhubarb can be found at any supermarket throughout the country, but is abundant in the latter half of Winter, when the crop is grown beneath the cover of an enormous clay rounded pots that eliminate the plants exposure to sunlight. This causes the hot pink stalks of the plant to lurch up from the soil, which greatly increases yield per plant. This type of rhubarb is called ‘forced rhubarb’, the later production during the Spring and early Summer simply being called rhubarb and grown in the traditional manner in a field. Either are fine to use, but rhubarb produced through the ‘forced’ method are said to be the better of the two types. Growers say that rhubarb grown past Midsummer is not to be consumed, but don’t be alarmed by the presence of rhubarb in a containing when you’re in a supermarket or greengrocer during the latter days of August. Our global food and agricultural economy mean that somewhere there is always the right conditions and will to supply a demand.
Once you’ve obtained a bundle of the brilliantly coloured stalks, was them and cut off the leaves and the top part of the stem. Cut into roughly one to two-inch chunks and lay into a roasting tray, spreading them out to ensure that they are all in a single layer. Sprinkle the rhubarb shards with vanilla sugar and place them into an oven at 200 Celsius for convection ovens, 180 Celsius for fan-assisted ovens or gas mark 6 for gas-powered ovens for an hour.
Vanilla sugar is one of those secret ingredients that totally transform a dish from simply tasty to memorably delicious. It pervades every dessert it’s added to with an omnipresent, complimenting full flavour of vanilla. I can state that I have never searched for it online since it couldn’t be any easier to make. Fill a large sealable jar with caster sugar and keep it in a pantry or in a cupboard until you prepare a recipe which calls for the contents of a vanilla pod. Once you make something like a custard or a cake and the multitude of microscopic black seeds are scraped into some sort of sweet, heavenly emulsion or batter, reserve the pod and just drive it down into the depth of the sugar jar. Close and seal and leave for one month and you will have caster sugar perfumed and flavoured with luscious vanilla. You can add as many emptied vanilla pods as you wish, as proportions are not important. If you don’t have vanilla sugar at hand, drizzle a tablespoon of the finest vanilla extract over the layer of cut rhubarb before showering them with the sugar.
After the hour roasting, with the tray from the oven. Other than the heavenly scent of rhubarb and vanilla, you’ll notice that there’s a great amount of liquid which has been released from the rhubarb. Do not discard this. Cover and allow the tray to cool to room temperature. Once cool, strain the contents of the roasting tray over a medium saucepan, which catches the roasting juices, and tip the rhubarb flesh into a bowl. The chunks will be incredibly tender, so macerate them with a fork until they are a thick, fibrous paste coloured like a dying sunset. Cover and leave in the fridge to focus your efforts on the syrup.
Place the saucepan on a high heat and boil down until a syrupy consistency. Gradually, you’ll see the thin watery liquid softly kissed with pink transform into a strong candy coloured syrup. Note how I said syrupy and not thick; this is because this is a cold dessert, meaning all its parts must be chilled. Liquids become much thicker when they are at lower temperatures, so always imagine how a liquid will flow when it isn’t in a searing hot pan. Once it easily coats the back of a wooden spoon, remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temp.
Once the rendered rhubarb flesh is chilled, the syrup at room temperature, and you’re wanting to serve the dessert, pour the double cream into a large bowl (the larger the bowl and larger the whisk the easier air is incorporated into the cream, meaning less time and effort to whisk) and whisk until the cream is just strong enough to barely support itself. This about-to-collapse consistency is the perfect texture; soft and pillowy.
Whipped, fold the rhubarb into the cream with the use of a spatula. You can fully mix the two together to create an all-pink cream, but I prefer to barely fold them together so that the rhubarb-cream mix resembles an expensive marble. Not only is it drastically more pleasing to eye, its also more fun to eat, since there’s an interplay between the tart of the rhubarb and the dairy of the cream so every spoonful is a varying balance of each of the two ingredients. Once just holding together, I drizzle in half of the syrup and fold two or three times just though it serves as a pink, glistening river flowing through the mix.
Tip into a large bowl or tureen to bring to the table and to spoon own onto individual bowls or spoon into individual sundae glasses/bowls before topping each with a final swirl of syrup.
Cream Soda Floats - Serves 4
If the magenta bounty of rhubarb has evaded you, there’s nothing to fear. These cream soda floats serve as the perfect substitute; just as indulgent and refreshing- with a fraction of the effort! Chilled, sweetened sodawater topped with generous scoops of thick vanilla ice cream.
100g granulated sugar
The contents of one vanilla pod or a teaspoon of vanilla extract
4 large scoops of the best vanilla ice-cream
250ml bottled sodawater
Pour the water and sugar into a saucepan and boil rapidly for two to three minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Following this, empty in the contents of a vanilla pod (remember to save the husk for some vanilla sugar!) or the teaspoon of vanilla extract and allow the liquid to cool to room temperature before placing into the fridge. This cooling process allows this thin syrup to infuse with the vanilla.
Once chilled and you wish to serve, in a decanter pour in the syrup and the contents of a bottle of sparkling water before decanting into sundae glasses or plain drinking glasses before generously topping with finest vanilla ice-cream available to you.