Sometimes, when I am planning a pudding, it can feel like there is a hitch in my brain, a little sticky spot that I catch on, and I have to release myself from it before I can move on. That hitch, that sticky spot, is rhubarb and custard. I know that there are other pudding bases, sweet dishes that are more original, more popular. I know that there exist other marvellous fruits that deserve the spotlight, that there are chocolate concoctions that will ooze and impress, bitter caramels that will shock and delight. But in order to get to them, I have to move past my first instinct which is always: rhubarb and custard.
It’s not simply that it is a default combination in my mind. ‘Default’ suggests something boring and uninspired, like toast for lunch, or tomato pasta for supper – not unenjoyable, but not exactly interesting. For me, it is the opposite: that rhubarb and custard is such a wonderful combination, that it is so interesting, that it can be difficult to think of anything else.
Most classic combos are classic for a reason, but rhubarb and custard has its own particular charm that goes above and beyond this, I think. Looking at rhubarb and custard makes me feel like I have synaesthesia, like I can taste the colours. The highlighter pink of the rhubarb stem tastes as sweet-sharp, as simultaneously mouth-puckering and candied as it looks. Whereas the buttermilk-coloured custard that contrasts is as cool and calming, as mellow and rich as it appears. The two together bring out the best in the other: their contrast is their strength. It’s no real surprise that it is my first port of call when there is a need for pudding.
Here I combine them in a baked cheesecake. A cheesecake base is – surprisingly for a dish containing over half a kilo of cheese – something of an empty vessel for flavour, and allows the aromatic vanilla to shine and hold its own alongside the stirred through rhubarb compote. Using a combination old-fashioned custard powder and concentrated vanilla paste conjures up memories of (the good kind of) school dinners while remaining elegant and sweetly perfumed.
If you’d like to turn this into a real show-stopper of a pudding, you can run a sharp vegetable peeler down the length of a raw stalk of rhubarb, creating a perfect ombré pink ribbon. Macerate these in a little sugar syrup, and then place them alongside each other across the cheesecake, cutting them flush with edge.
Rhubarb and Custard cheesecake
Makes: Serves 8-10
Takes: 30 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: 40-50 minutes
For the rhubarb compote
200g rhubarb, chopped into inch-long chunks
½ tbsp cornflour
For the base
60g butter, melted
For the filling
600g cream cheese
200g caster sugar
2 tablespoons custard powder
1 tsp vanilla paste
200g sour cream
For decoration (optional)
2 stalks of rhubarb
100g caster sugar
- First, make the rhubarb compote. Cook the rhubarb and sugar together with a splash of water over a medium heat until the rhubarb collapses and the sugar dissolves. Whizz in a food processor or with an immersion blender until smooth, then return to the pan. Make a slurry with the cornflour and a tablespoon of water, stir together, and add to the rhubarb in the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for another couple of minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula throughout. Set to one side to cool.
- Place the hobnobs in a food processor and whizz them until they are finely chopped, or put them in a sealed plastic bag, and bash them with a rolling pin. Add the melted butter and continue whizzing or stirring until combined. Press the crumbs into the bottom of a lined, loose-bottomed, 8 inch cake pan, until they sit in a firm, even layer. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 160°C. Beat the cream cheese and sugar together by hand or in a stand mixer until it is smooth and combined. Whisk in the eggs, custard powder and vanilla paste. Fold the sour cream through the mix gently. Pour half of the mixture onto the chilled biscuit base, then spoon half of the rhubarb compote on top. Try to avoid it reaching the very edges of the pan, as it will caramelise if it touches the metal. Pour the remaining mixture on top, and spoon the rest of the rhubarb onto that, swirling it a little with a skewer.
- Bake for 45-50 minutes until the edges are coming away from the edge of the pan, but the middle remains wobbly. Leave to cool completely before removing from the cake pan.
- If you’d like to decorate the top of the cheesecake with extra rhubarb, cut long, thin ribbons of rhubarb using a vegetable peeler. Place them in a large baking tray. Put the sugar and water in a small pan and quickly bring to the boil. Pour this syrup over the cut rhubarb and leave for a few moments; the residual heat from the syrup will cook the rhubarb. Place each strip across the top of the cheesecake and cut it to length so it fits with the edge of the cake. Repeat until the top of the cheesecake is covered in the strips of fruit.