Whenever you work in a professional pastry kitchen, especially one that emphasizes seasonal ingredients, it's always an incredible pleasure to greet each new delivery of fresh fruit. The shocking palette of deep reds, sunset pinks and oranges, and deep purples of spring brings an especially huge rush of excitement about the rotation of menu and the pure joy of working with and presenting such gorgeous specimens.
We are at that precise blissful moment of the year to celebrate the unique sweet tart combination of fresh strawberries and rhubarb, the two bright red harbingers of spring. Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, prepared in New England and the South since the mid-1800s, is one of my favorite pastries. I hope everyone takes the opportunity to bake at least one this season. Mmmmmm, pie.
This time out, I'm doing a simple pudding cake that isn't terribly complicated but makes a nice and fairly light warm dessert. For those who fear the pie crust (and you know who you are!), this one doesn't involve a rolling pin. Since this dessert is baked a far shorter time than pie, the rhubarb gets cooked a bit on the stovetop with sugar, orange zest and a splash of vanilla to tenderize a bit and release its juices. As it cools, toss in a good haul of sliced strawberries. Blend the dry and liquid ingredients together and lighten the whole mix by folding in whipped egg whites. Then bake the cakes in a bain marie, which is the French pastry term for "water bath." This method ensures slow, even cooking, an important measure when baking custards and puddings that contain eggs.
The cake is very light and spongy and the fruit is tender and luscious, best served warm on a cool spring evening.
- The cooked rhubarb may taste sweet but the added strawberries don't have any additional sugar.
- When beating egg whites, whip them until they look foamy and opaque, then add sugar slowly. Continue beating until they form stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted. They should be shiny and smooth. If they start to lose their shine and look grainy and a bit craggy, you've gone too far.
- Because the cake batter is very thin, stir or gently whisk in 1/3 of the egg whites to create a thicker base to fold in the remaining egg whites.
-I find it easier to handle the water bath and the ramekins if I use two smaller pans instead of one large one, which can sometimes be too heavy or awkward to maneuver. This reduces the risk of spills or splashes.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pudding Cakes
Makes 6 servings
4 stalks (about 12 oz) fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/2" pieces
1/4 C + 2 T sugar
zest of 1/2 orange
1/4 t vanilla
16 oz fresh strawberries
3/4 C sugar, divided
1/2 C flour
1/4 t salt
1 C milk @ room temperature
1 T lemon juice
zest of 1/2 orange
1/2 t vanilla
3 eggs @ room temperature
2 oz (4 T) butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter six 6-ounce ramekins. Put on a large pot of water and bring to a light simmer to use for the water bath.
Place the sliced rhubarb in a saucepan with the sugar, orange zest and vanilla. Cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes or until the fruit softens. Slice the strawberries into bite-sized pieces and combine with the rhubarb. Distribute the fruit equally among the six ramekins.
Set aside 2 tablespoons of sugar and whisk the remaining sugar with the flour and the salt. In another bowl, whisk together the milk, lemon juice, orange zest, vanilla and egg yolks. Whisk in the melted butter until thoroughly blended. Combine the liquid with the sugar and flour mixture and whisk until smooth. The mixture will be very thin.
Beat the egg whites with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar until stiff peaks form. Portion a third of the egg whites and stir into the cake batter until it thickens a bit. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the remaining egg whites one-third at a time. Pour equal portions of the batter over the fruit in the prepared ramekins and place them in a large roasting pan or two smaller pans. Place the pan(s) in the oven and pour in enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake the pudding cakes for about 25 - 30 minutes or until they are puffy, golden and spring back when touched. Carefully transfer the ramekins to a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.