Semolina Budino with Rhubarb and Mint Marmellata
by Gina Depalma
Spring has many harbingers. Tender young leaves sprouting on trees, tulips popping up out of the ground, short sleeves in the midday sun, and a warmth to the wind that sweeps the April showers. But for a pastry chef springtime means longing; berries and stone fruits will not appear until summer calls, so we must wait impatiently. Our comrades on the savory side of the kitchen have early beans and ramps, asparagus and fiddleheads to liven up their menus, while we must bide our time and make the best of citrus fruits and the last apples from cold storage. Then, just as you consider pulling your sandals out of storage, the market yields its first springtime treasure to pastry cooks – Rhubarb. Pink, slender and firm, rhubarb is the one item that causes my entire focus as a chef to shift away from the cold winter and towards the warmth of the sun.
As a child, rhubarb always confused me. It looked like red celery and was always piled among other vegetables at the market. When I had my first taste of it raw, sneaking away a slice from my mother’s cutting board, it was tart and crunchy, and to my further surprise, slightly green on the inside! I could not understand why mom was always using it like fruit. Even though she made a slightly tart rhubarb preserve or baked it into a beautiful pie, that first taste made me shy away from it for years. It was not until adulthood that I came to fully appreciate it’s many wonderful qualities.
Rhubarb, or Rheum rhabarbarum is indeed a vegetable, a cousin to the sorrel plant. There are many species of Rhuem, some of which have been growing in China and India for over 2,000 years. Ancient cultures cultivated rhubarb for medicinal purposes, using the roots and stalks for various digestive ailments. Marco Polo, who came across it during his travels to China, allegedly brought rhubarb to Europe. It may well have been brought through Venice during its height as a trading city and used by Italian pharmacists and doctors for years before its first recorded planting in Italy in 1608. Some hundred years later, rhubarb was cultivated in Europe and England as a food plant and began appearing in pies in the late 1700’s. Seeds eventually found their way to America in sometime after 1790, and by the early 1820’s rhubarb was found at produce markets in Massachusetts and beyond.
Rhubarb is a hardy plant, a perennial, cool season crop that grows during warmer weather and then becomes dormant when temperatures drop to a certain level. In the spring, the growing resumes and continues into late summer. The majority of the commercial crop in the United States comes from Washington State, Oregon and Michigan, but small farmers throughout the Northern U.S. have found that rhubarb grows well in almost any area that has cooler temperatures in the fall and winter, and fertile, well-drained soil. Rhubarb is also a good producer; once cultivated, rhubarb plantings remain productive for up to 8 years.
Common garden rhubarb, or Rheum x coltorum is what most cooks are familiar with. Within that species there is a long list of varieties, many of which are hybrids. The color ranges from vibrant red to delicate pink and red-speckled green. Many consumers assume that the brightest red rhubarb is the sweetest, but many of the greener varieties are milder and less tart. Stalks can be tender and thin or broad and quite thick. Because there are so many varieties, and because they are so localized, many people are only familiar with one particular variety until they are confronted with another, and I am no exception. Growing up in Virginia, I was used to long, bright red stalks with bright green leaves. When I saw my first local New York State rhubarb at the Union Square, I was struck by how green and delicate it was, with a pinkish section only at the root ends. And to confuse matters even more, the rhubarb I can obtain from Oregon or Washington State is huge in comparison, extremely long, bright red in color and an ivory-white on the inside. The best lessons of cooking are learned through experimentation, I always say!
Whatever variety you may find, I highly recommend using and enjoying rhubarb whenever it makes it way to your local market. Rhubarb is wonderful when accented with other flavors, such as lemon, vanilla and mint, and when cooked, its soft texture is a nicely matched with raspberries and strawberries. My favorite way to use rhubarb is to sauté thin slices or small cubes in a bit of sugar syrup until is just begins to turn tender and succulent; feel free to adjust the sweetness with more sugar or honey. It is excellent spooned over ice cream or pureed and folded into whipped cream and topped with crumbled amaretti or toasted walnuts.
At Babbo, one of my most popular desserts was a budino, or pudding, made with semolina and rhubarb and accented with fresh mint. The recipe, below, can be found in The Babbo Cookbook as well.
Use the butter to grease eight 4-ounce ramekins. Sprinkle them with granulated sugar to evenly coat the interior and tap out the excess. Place the ramekins in a baking dish large enough to fit them with at least an inch of space between each ramekin.
In a small saucepan, stir together the sliced rhubarb and ½ cup of the sugar. With the tip of the paring knife, scrape the insides of 1 vanilla bean into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the rhubarb is soft, about 15 minutes. Cool completely.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the egg yolks and ¾ cup of the sugar. Beat until very light yellow. Add the vanilla extract and the melted butter, then beat in the milk. In a small bowl, combine the semolina and cake flours, then add them gradually to the egg mixture, beating lightly. Fold in the rhubarb with a rubber spatula. Beat or whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until foamy. Gradually beat in 2 tablespoons of the sugar and whip until soft peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites in the batter.
Divide the batter among the ramekins. Add enough hot water to the baking dish to come one-third of the way up the side of the ramekins. Cover the entire baking dish with aluminum foil. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the budini begin to puff slightly. Remove the foil and continue to bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until slightly pale golden and set. Remove from the oven and transfer to a rack to cool.
While the budini bake, make the marmellata: In a large saucepan, mix together the rhubarb and sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring the mixture to dissolve the sugar as the rhubarb begins to soften and release its juices. Scrape the insides of the vanilla bean into the pan, add the mint, and continue to stir. Cook the mixture until the rhubarb is tender but still holds its shape, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately transfer the marmellata into a shallow dish to facilitate cooking. When completely cool, removed the mint.
Combine the cream and the scraped insides of the remaining vanilla bean in a chilled mixing bowl. Whip on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue to whip until the cream holds its shape.
Unmold each budino from its ramekin and top with some of the marmellata. Serve with a dollop of vanilla whipped cream.