30 April 2016

You'd have thought

“You mean you've never had rhubarb?” I say, incredulous, and pick up at the greengrocer's shop a bunch of rhubarb stalks, crimson and lanky, the leaves tightly furled. I stress 'never' in such a way you'd have thought my friend has just admitted never having had water. “And you are twenty-seven!” I don't know why I had to bring up age. As if one's placement on a time scale has anything to do with it. How old was I to try rhubarb for the first time? Twenty-five, I remember that. It was a simple rhubarb compote, I remember that too. I made it in my brand-new round Le Creuset (the colour of kiwi). I've had it for eights years now. It was the smallest in stock at the kitchenware store and it was on sale, and that's how I could afford it on my then student budget. I had just moved to Amsterdam. The shop assistant, a stocky young guy, described to me the merits and advantages of a bigger cast-iron pot, also a Le Creuset, but I recall saying I was going to use it to cook for myself only, so the smallest one would do fine, solo meals, you see. I instantly wondered if I didn't sound flirty for saying that, because I really didn't mean to sound that way. In the rhubarb compote I threw in some dried lavender flowers, I remember that too. I must have enjoyed the thing, but I assume that now, because, strangely, I don't remember if I did. I have to bend the rhubarb stalks to fit them in my shopping bag, one of which snaps and dislodges a fibrous deep purple thread. It hangs off the stem like a broken violin string. 

The crimson liquid, thick, almost viscose, is dripping through the sieve, separates from the rhubarb flesh, soft and slithery. I love the smell of roasted rhubarb. It smells fresh and clean, sharp even. The crimson flow slows down now, goes at a steady pace, like an IV drip. Arms crossed, I lean with my hips against the sink and wait until the rhubarb is fully drained. I'm putting together a rhubarb polenta cake. I have already rubbed the butter into the polenta with my fingertips. I almost got the wrong polenta meal at the supermarket – I needed the coarse polenta but distractedly pulled the fine off the shelf. Excuse me, I said to the cashier and to the ten people behind me in line at the check-out, then ran back to the grains aisle to exchange the bag. I wasn't leaving with the wrong polenta, I'm sorry. The whole point of this cake is the contrast of the gritty sugary buttery crust and the soft tart refreshing rhubarb.

What a wonderful thing! – I'd written in the margin next to the recipe after the first try, three years ago – I like how the coarse polenta requests a little extra work from the mouth, that it is a perfect foil to the fleshy rhubarb. I went on: Instead of cinnamon, which I believe would be lovely here, I used a vanilla bean, and will continue to do so, and in lieu of an orange, a lemon. But refrain adding either to the fruit itself, its clean taste is another nice contrast to the vanilla- and lemon-scented crust. And why is there no salt amongst the dry ingredients? A little of it should only zoom in on the flavours. And on: By the way, the soft, moist pink of this rhubarb looks like pure sex...

I love this cake, how it made its way into my memory and lodged itself there, solidly, despite the fact that until today I haven't made it as much as twice. That said, believe it or not, but I never stopped thinking about it. And I stress 'never' in such a way you'd have thought I've just admitted never having had a meal.

I set the kettle on for coffee and ask Anthony if he would like a slice with his cup. Yes, he'd give it a try, he says.

“I hate rhubarb. I was six when I tried it first. It used to grow in my backyard. My friends would eat it, they would eat it like a candy, can you imagine this, but I can't stand it. The only thing I hate more in my desserts than rhubarb is lemon. But this is not bad, it's actually nice, I quite like it. I won't finish my slice, though. Because I can't stand it.”

I get out for a moment to take the trash down. The slice is gone when I'm back. I know it's not in the trash bin, it can't be – I haven't yet placed a new bag in it.

I really love this cake.
Rhubarb Polenta Cake
Adapted from Ripe, by Nigel Slater

For the filling
500 g (1 pound) rhubarb
50 g (heaped 1/4 cup) unrefined cane sugar
4 tablespoons water

For the crust
125 g (¾ cup) coarse polenta
200 g (1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
150 g (heaped 3/4 cup) unrefined cane sugar, plus 1 tablespoon more for sprinkling
1 plump vanilla pod, seeds only
grated zest of a small lemon
150 g (10 tablespoons) butter, cut in small pieces
1 large egg
3 tablespoons milk

Lightly oil or butter a 20cm (8-inch) springform cake pan. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 F) and put a baking sheet in the middle of it to get hot. Trim the rhubarb, cut each stem into short lengths, and put them in a baking dish. Scatter over the sugar and water and bake for twenty minutes, until the rhubarb is soft but still holds its shape. Remove the rhubarb pieces from the dish and put them in a colander or large sieve to drain. (Reserve the rhubarb juices to serve with the cake.) You can prepare the rhubarb filling up to one day in advance.

Combine the polenta, flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add the vanilla seeds, lemon zest and butter. Rub the butter into the polenta with your fingertips until the mixture looks like coarse rubble. Alternatively, blitz the mixture in a food processor. But really, do it manually. Not only it's a cinch to do, saves on washing up, is a peaceful thing to do, yes yes yes, but rubbing the butter into the polenta mixture with your fingers will also help to release the essential oils in the lemon zest and distribute the vanilla beans more evenly. Break the egg into a small bowl and mix with the milk, then blend into the crumble mix. Take care not to overmix; it's done when the dry and wet ingredients have come together to form a soft, slightly sticky dough. If it isn't a little sticky, add a touch more milk

Slightly wet your hands and press about two-thirds of the mixture into the prepared cake pan, pushing it 2cm up the sides. Make sure there are no large cracks or holes. Place the drained rhubarb on top, leaving a small rim around the edge. Crumble lumps of the remaining polenta mixture over the fruit with your fingertips, but don't worry if the rhubarb isn't all covered. Scatter over 1 tablespoon of unrefined cane sugar.

Put on the hot baking sheet and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the edges and the crust turn deep golden brown. Mine was done after about 35 minutes, so I'd suggest to start checking from then on. Cool before removing from the pan. Serve in slices, with coffee.