Just desserts

Rhubarbs, souffles, sponges and Easter sundaes

At celebratory times of the year, such as the one that takes place this weekend, it is traditional to pull out the stops and do some especially enjoyable cooking. This is not necessarily about complicated, show-off stuff, it is simply about preparing and eating nice things.

As Easter is the first big holiday in the new year, it also heralds the arrival of premier seasonal produce. Being particularly early this time, however, there are not going to be quite as many goodies available. There will be some wild salmon, albeit expensive, as well as some equally pricey spring lamb. But both are synonymous with Easter and rebirth, springtime around the corner, and the annual cycle of growth and prosperity, so you might well feel like splashing out.

The focal point of the weekend is tomorrow's lunch. The gathering of relations around midday, excited children clutching their rapidly melting Easter eggs, glasses of sweet sherry for grannies and aunts and Bloody Mary's for myself and other like-minded diehards.

For lunch, I would have a really smooth and limpid bowl of creamed celery soup to begin with, followed by roast leg of lamb, roast potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli (if it is ready by now), the last of the leeks in a creamy white sauce, and some young buttered carrots. Of course, there would also be freshly made mint sauce, and proper gravy.

Now as to a pudding, it would have to be something quite special but familiar and something to leave room for. The following recipes should give you food for thought.

Stewed rhubarb and custard, serves 4-6

The most important thing to remember when cooking rhubarb is not to add any water at all, as the rhubarb simply stews in its own abundant juices. The flavour of orange has a fine affinity with rhubarb, so, too, does ginger.

700g/11/2 lb young, pink rhubarb

175g/6oz caster sugar

grated rind of two oranges

5cm/2" of fresh ginger, peeled and thickly sliced

Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/gas mark 3

Peel away the parts of the rhubarb you might think are tough and stringy. Cut up into 3.5cm/11/2" lengths. Put into a stove-top-to-oven dish and place on a low heat (just to heat the dish for the oven). Stir the orange rind into the sugar in a bowl until it is thoroughly mixed together and strew evenly over the rhubarb. Put on the lid and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Have a look and give the pot a brief shake about; try not to stir as this can break up the rhubarb. You will notice that some juice has already started to exude, but it will need another 15 minutes or so to be thoroughly cooked through. Remove from the oven, take off the lid and allow to cool. Remove the lumps of ginger and serve at room temperature, with cool custard (see below).

As this is prime rhubarb season, another recipe: an old favourite, but, for me, the best crumble of all.

Rhubarb crumble, serves 4

For the crumble:

110g/4oz plain flour

110g/4oz caster sugar

110g/4oz ground almonds

1 tsp ground ginger

pinch of salt

175g/6oz butter, hard from the fridge and cut into small chunks

700g/l1/2 lb rhubarb, cut up into 3.5cm/11/2" lengths

2 tbsp caster sugar

Put the flour, sugar, ground almonds, ginger and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer or food processor. Gently blend these dry ingredients together and then add the butter. Mix as if starting to make pastry, but do not overwork the mixture; the look should be lumpy, rather than the usual finer-textured "breadcrumb" look.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Spread the rhubarb into a suitable baking dish and sprinkle with sugar. Pile the crumble mixture over the top, but do not pack down; give the dish a sharp rap on the worktop to settle the surface. Briefly drag a fork over the surface to give texture. Put on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes until the surface is golden and slightly blistered brown in parts. Serve with very cold pouring cream.

Brandy Alexander ice cream, serves 4

The Groucho Club in London's Soho make's a good Brandy Alexander. It is a favourite late-night cocktail of mine, fashioned from Cognac, Kalhua (chocolate liqueur) and cream, shaken over ice, strained into a chilled glass and dusted with nutmeg. I always think, after about the third one, that it would make wonderful ice-cream. Curiously, the next morning, I have no recollection of this wizard idea. Until now.

5 egg yolks, from medium-sized eggs

90g/31/2 caster sugar

a generous grating of nutmeg

2 tbsp good Cognac

3 tbsp Kalhua

150ml/5fl oz double cream

In a roomy bowl, over a pan of gently simmering water, beat the egg yolks, sugar and nutmeg together until very thick and light. Add the Cognac and Kalhua and continue beating until the consistency is billowy, yet still continuing to thicken. Remove from the heat and continue beating until the mixture has cooled down. Whip the cream until only loosely thick and fold carefully into the egg mixture. Spoon into small wine glasses, leaving a half-inch (1cm) gap. Seal with a small piece of cling film and place in the freezer for at least 6 hours, or overnight.

Remove the glasses to the fridge for 20 minutes before you wish to eat the ice-cream. Lift off the cling film, pour a spoonful of double cream over each serving and grate a little more nutmeg on top.

Note: an electronic hand whisk will ease the making of this ice-cream, although hand whisking with a fine balloon whisk will produce a finer texture.

Chocolate souffle, serves 4

This recipe comes from The Baking Book, by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake (Conran Octopus, pounds 20). It is easy to make and very good indeed. You will need four ramekins of 300ml/101/2 fl oz capacity.

25g melted butter

1/2 tbsp caster sugar

175g/6oz good quality dark, bitter sweet chocolate, broken into chunks

150ml/5fl oz double cream

3 large eggs, separated

2 tbsp Cognac

2 extra egg whites

3 tbsp caster sugar

1 level tbsp icing sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7.

Brush the ramekins with the melted butter and then sprinkle with caster sugar so that it sticks in an even coating; tap out any excess. This will help the souffle mixture to both rise evenly and also produces a nice crunchy thin crust. Stand the ramekins on a baking tray, with ample space between them, ready for the oven.

Put the cream and chocolate in a heavy based pan. Set over a very low heat and, stirring occasionally, allow the chocolate to melt. Remove from the heat and stir or whisk gently until smooth. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, and then the Coqnac. Set aside in a warm spot by the cooker.

Put the 3 egg whites, together with the two extra ones, into a scrupulously clean mixing bowl, and whisk until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle with the 3 tablespoons of caster sugar and whisk further to make a glossy meringue, but do not over-mix as this can cause the mixture to become grainy, which will spoil the texture of the souffle.

Add a spoonful of the meringue to the warm chocolate mixture, and gently but thoroughly fold in; this will loosen the chocolate mixture and make it easier to fold in the rest of the egg whites. Fold in the remainder of the meringue until there are no streaks of white, ensuring the souffle mixture is still light and airy.

Carefully spoon the mixture into the prepared ramekins, so that it comes up nearly to the rims of each. Lightly run your little finger around the edge, to just push away the mixture slightly; this should help to produce the distinctive "hat", once the souffle is cooked. Sift the merest amount of icing sugar over the surface of each (these last two instructions are purely personal touches, and are not included in the original recipe).

Bake in the oven for between 8 and 10 minutes, until puffed and still wobbly in the middle. The centres should still be soft and slightly runny. Dust with a little more icing sugar and serve straight away.

I like to serve chocolate souffle with very cold, loosely whipped double cream that has been lightly sweetened with vanilla sugar.

Mrs Richard St John's remarkable steamy syrup sponge, serves 4

65g/21/2 oz butter, softened

125g/41/2 oz caster sugar

175g/6 oz sifted self-raising flour

2 large eggs

pinch of salt

3-4 tbsp milk

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

4-6 tbsp golden syrup

First of all, grease a 1.1 litre/2 pint pudding basin with 15g/1/2 oz of butter and put the basin and the golden syrup into the fridge to get really cold (this will help you to apply as much syrup all around the bowl without it falling off the sides into the bottom, resulting in a wonderful sticky golden dome all over the sponge once turned out, rather than just around the top). Cream together the remaining butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each, and then fold in the flour and salt, alternately with the milk and vanilla, until a "dropping" consistency is achieved.

Thickly spread the syrup all around the bowl, right up the sides to the rim, and then add an extra big dollop into the bottom. Spoon in the sponge mixture and cover with a piece of well-buttered, pleated greaseproof paper followed by a piece of similarly buttered foil with a further pleat - but placed at right-angles to the grease-proof, so as to allow the pudding to rise. Tie around securely with string. Steam for 11/2 hours. Lift out, carefully run a knife around the sponge and invert onto a hot plate. Serve with:

Custard

This recipe will, perhaps, make more than you will need. Oh yeah?

500ml/18fl oz milk

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

6 egg yolks

110g/4oz caster sugar

Heat the milk together with the vanilla pod in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Remove from the stove and whisk for a few seconds to release the vanilla seeds into the milk. Briefly beat together the egg yolks and sugar and strain over the hot milk, whisking as you go. Return to the saucepan and cook over a very low heat (with a heat-diffuser pad if possible) until limpid and lightly thickened. Some say it should coat the back of a wooden spoon, but I don't go along with this theory; it should be taken further than this, almost until there is the odd simmering blip on the surface. When you think it is ready, give a final vigorous whisk to amalgamate and pour into a warm jug

Note: If you are unlucky enough to split the custard, a blast in a liquidiser will rescue it.

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