SOPHIE SMITH from Bakehouse in the Barn welcomes the rhubarb season

THERE’S something magical about Yorkshire forced rhubarb. In January, in the depths of winter, the trees and hedgerows are bare and snowdrops shiver on sharp mornings. Yet inside the forcing sheds of the rhubarb triangle, a nine-square-mile area between Morley, Wakefield and Rothwell, it’s warm. The only light in these vast cathedrals comes from the flickering flame of candles staked into the compacted earth.

Luminous, lustrous, slim stems of shocking pink rhubarb stand tall. Row upon row, creaking, crackling, in readiness for harvest.

Jonathan Westwood’s family have been rhubarb growers for five generations. It’s a labour-intensive process; with plants building strength outside for two years before being transplanted into the low, sunken sheds. The crop is then left in the dark to restrict photosynthesis; the resulting stalks sweeter and more tender than the stems grown outdoors.

Every step of the process is done by hand; planting and tending to the crowns, nourishing the soil with nitrogen rich shoddy (a by-product of the wool industry) digging and replanting the rhubarb indoors – Westwood’s forcing sheds are the country’s oldest still in use. The slender stalks are picked delicately daily, packed carefully into 14lb boxes and despatched to be fought over by top chefs nationwide. Within four weeks, the crown is exhausted, it’s work done.

To me, rhubarb symbolises new life, a fresh start, a homegrown splash of colour among the winter root vegetables, a welcome diversion from unseasonal air freighted strawberries.

I’m not alone; between December and March, Westwood’s 25 strong team will nurture, pull and pack up to 300 tonnes of forced rhubarb.

Rhubarb has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Yorkshire forced rhubarb secured a coveted PDO in 2010, protecting its status and crowning traditional growers like Jonathan Westwood with glory for their dedication and perseverance during tough times.

This month, my recipe is a billowy soft, squidgy pavlova with rhubarb, gently roasted, and lashings of custard cream. It’s a perfect sweet for Valentines Day... date or no date.

All of the components of this dessert can be made in advance, even a couple of days before you need it. It is best to assemble the pavlova just before serving though, as the juice from the fruit can bleed.

Rhubarb pavlova


For the meringue

4 large free-range egg whites

200g caster sugar

Pinch of sea salt

Preheat the oven to 110°C

Draw a ten-inch circle in pencil on a sheet of parchment.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites and salt on medium power until firm. Very gradually, add the sugar in stages (if you add the sugar too quickly, it will ‘bleed out’ when you bake it) beating in between each addition. Once all the sugar is incorporated, turn the speed up to high and beat for seven minutes. You should have stiff, glossy peaks and the meringue should not be at all grainy if you rub a little between your thumb and forefinger.

Spoon a couple of dollops into a piping bag, you could add a little natural food colouring if desired. Make four dots in the corners of a large baking tray. Stick the baking parchment to it, pencil side down- you should still be able to see your circle through the paper.

Spoon the meringue onto the parchment, keeping roughly to the circle. Use the back of the spoon to create peaks, troughs and waves.

Pipe a few teardrops with your piping bag around the edge of the parchment.

Pop the tray into the warmed oven, bake for two hours. Once the two hours are up, switch the oven off, leave the meringue inside with the door slightly ajar. Allow the meringue to cool completely before removing from the oven.

For the custard cream

500g full fat milk

125g caster sugar

50g cornflour, sieved

6 free range egg yolks (120g)

50g butter, at room temperature

1 vanilla pod

*for a quick cheat...see below

Plus: 300g double cream

The base of this custard recipe will make double what you will need, but it’s easier to make a larger quantity as smaller batches tend to overheat and scramble. You can freeze the other half for another time, or it will keep, covered in the fridge for three days.

In a bowl beat the egg yolk with the sugar and cornflour until it is pale and light.

Pour the milk into a pan, scrape the seeds of the vanilla pod into the milk and place on a medium heat, stirring with a whisk. Once the milk starts to fizz and bubble up the sides of the pan, take it off the heat and pour half of it into the egg yolks, whisking as you do so. Return the rest of the milk to the heat. Once the milk starts to rise up the sides of the pan again, pour the egg yolk mixture into the hot milk. Keeping the heat medium, whisk with gusto... it may look to start with that it has split, but it will come together if you beat it quickly. After a minute or so the custard will begin to pop, blowing little air bubbles in the centre on the pan. Remove from the heat and pass through a sieve, just in case you have any scrambled bits. Stir in the butter in cubes, keep the custard moving, until it has all melted and emulsified.

Cover the surface of the custard with cling film or a bee’s wax wrap and leave to cool.

Once the custard is cool, divide it into two halves, wrap one and freeze it. Place the other half of the custard in the bowl of a food mixer. It should have set into a jelly like lump. Set the mixer going on low to break the custard up. Add the double cream in two halves with the mixer running, you may have to turn it up a bit to stiffen it.

*If you want to skip this step, you could buy a 400g pot of chilled readymade custard. Beat the 300g of double cream until it’s really quite stiff, then fold in the custard.

For the rhubarb

4 sticks of forced Yorkshire rhubarb

50g demerara sugar

Juice and zest of one orange

Preheat the oven to 180°C

Cut the rhubarb into inch-long pieces. I like to cut them on an angle so they look like pink diamonds.

Arrange the rhubarb on a baking tray, line it with parchment if it’s made of aluminium.

Squeeze the juice from the orange over the rhubarb, sprinkle the sugar and zest over the top.

Place in the oven and bake for five to eight minutes, the rhubarb should be softened, but still have its shape and colour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the tray.

To assemble

A handful of raspberries and pomegranate seeds

A couple of pink macaron

Gently remove the meringue from its parchment and place on a large plate.

Spoon the thick custard cream on top of the meringue.

Arrange the rhubarb and raspberries on top of the meringue, top with the meringue teardrops, macaron and pomegranate seeds.

What a treat!

Sophie Smith runs Bakehouse in the Barn and prepares puddings cakes and tarts to order from her home in Hovingham. She will be at Hovingham Village market on Saturday February 2.

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