Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Friend and foe in the garden.....

What a lovely afternoon I had on Saturday. The sun shone, the breeze blew and I spent a few hours doing what I love best, pottering around the kitchen experimenting in a leisurely way. My friend Jo came over, armed with a nice bottle of rosé, and we set to in the kitchen, cooking and gossiping whilst the kids charged about the garden.
The previous week hadn’t been so carefree. The chickens had been sickly and off colour and egg production was at a real low - from a glorious four eggs a day everyday to just one if we were lucky. We were baffled, nothing had changed in their routine, the weather had been great and yet they had gone from happy to miserable in a matter of days. I contemplated calling the vet but figured that an inner city vet would have a sketchy knowledge of chickens at best. A lot of anxious head scratching later and we had a eureka moment.  The rhubarb that had sprung into life over a matter of days was right next to their run and on inspection we found that the leaves had been well and truly stripped wherever they touched the mesh of the enclosure. 
Rhubarb leaves, I knew, were poisonous to humans, containing very high levels of oxalic acid, but I had no idea they were harmful to chickens too. A bit of time on Google confirmed it - the chickens had poisoned themselves, or more accurately I had poisoned the chickens by growing my rhubarb so close to them. In my defense the rhubarb came first but nevertheless I felt bad. So we hurriedly created a physical barrier between plant and chicken using a couple of limestone paving slabs leftover from landscaping the terrace, then crossed our fingers and waited to see if the situation improved. I had visions of tearful distraught children as we told them the chickens were ill, not to mention the possible end of the my Egg a Day blog adventure. But thankfully it worked, after a couple of days we were up to two eggs a day, then three, then after a week we were back up to the normal four a day. 
So it was in a particularly joyous mood that I set about creating a few eggy recipes this weekend. And the one I wanted to share first was not only a celebration of the eggs themselves, but also of the rhubarb that seemed to make the chickens so poorly. The inspiration was the rhubarb and custard sweets I loved so much as a child - something about the sharp almost fizzy rhubarb side, with the smooth creamy custard side was to my mind sweetie shop perfection. The result was a variation on the classic English egg custard tart, with a layer of sweet-sharp rhubarb on the base.
My resolution for my latest blog entry was to get better at photographing my recipes, both during their creation and the final result. People eat with their eyes and I know pictures would be appreciated. You would think that given my day job as a food stylist I would have no problem with this. But to be perfectly honest with you I am finding something like ‘stage fright’ setting in every time I cook for the blog - that because of my job, my photographs should and could be perfect, yet I am not a photographer, my skill is in the art of presentation, not the science of f-stops. But I will try harder and I will seek help to learn ….next time…. by the time the tart was ready, Jo and I had sunk the rosé, cracked open a second bottle and it had got dark and gloomy. For which I can only apologize.
But believe me, the tart worked - creamy baked vanilla custard, sweet but tart rhubarb, crisp buttery pastry. And healthy, lively chickens once again. A happy day indeed. 

Rhubarb & custard tart
Serves 6-8
Give yourself plenty of time to make this tart - there are various chilling and cooling stages that are best not rushed.
What you need:
for the rhubarb:
300g rhubarb, sliced in 4-5cm pieces
80g granulated sugar
for the pastry:
200g plain flour, preferably super fine ‘oo' grade
125g butter
2 tbsp icing sugar
for the custard:
300ml single cream
4 egg yolks
½ vanilla pod
50g caster sugar
1-2 tbsp demerara sugar, to finish (optional)
What to do: 
Add the rhubarb, in a single layer, to a shallow non-aluminum pan. Sprinkle over the sugar and add a mere tablespoon or two of cold water. Gently poach the rhubarb over a low heat, resisting the urge to stir too much - you don’t want a mushed up puree but lightly poached pieces in a little syrup. Give the pan a shake to and fro from time to time to make sure to ensure its not sticking. Set aside to cool. 
Make the pastry, either by hand or in a food processor. Out of sheer convenience I always use my processor but I have long suspected that my pastry would be better if I made it by hand, the old fashioned way, by rubbing the butter gently into the flour using the tips of your fingers. The way I was taught at school. One day I shall experiment with this theory. Either way stir the icing sugar through the butter and flour crumbs and add just as much cold water as you need to bring it all together in a ball. Wrap well in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. 
Whilst the pastry is chilling pour the cream into a small pan. Cut open the piece of vanilla pod and scrape in the seeds, then add the pod. Gently warm the cream a little, but taking care not to boil it, turn out the heat and leave to infuse.
Heat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 25cm loose bottomed metal flan tin and roll out the pastry to fit. Gently line the tin, trim and line with baking parchment and baking beans and bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 5-10 minutes or so until the pastry is cooked through. Remove from the the oven, allow to cool a little, then spread over the rhubarb and syrup. 
Back to the custard. Fish out the pod and discard (or wash, dry and add to a jar of sugar for lovely vanilla-scented baking). Add the egg yolks and sugar and mix really thoroughly before gently pouring into the tart on top of the rhubarb. Carefully transfer to the oven - I find sliding it onto a baking tray helps prevent slops - and bake for 20 minutes, or until the custard has just set. 
I finished off the tart by sprinkling over a little demerara sugar and browning it quickly under a hot grill - it looked very pretty and caramelized but I’m not how much it added to the taste. 


  1. What a fabulous blog. I've just discovered you via Twitter. As far as I know, my chooks haven't touched the rhubarb yet, but I'm going to barricade it anyway, so thanks for the tip. Did the hand pastry vs processor pastry thing a while back for my blog. It didn't seem to make any difference, I'm happy to report :)