Rhubarb has a fascinating history. When Marco Polo travelled to China, he found it being used as a medicinal and in the middle ages it made its way to Europe. It continued to be used to aid digestion and in 1845, Tilde, the wife of Piemontese Ettore Zucca, experimented with the rhubarb potion that her doctor had prescribed her for digestive ailments in an effort to make it more pleasant to drink. Her husband Ettore sensed that she was onto a winner as the result was a ruby red liqueur that was rich and aromatic, with bitter orange and cardamom added to rhubarb root. Rabarbaro Amaro was born and became popular even in the royal court.
The Zucca family went on to fame and fortune. If you have ever been to Milano you might have noticed the delightful Cafe’ Zucca in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, right next to the gothic Duomo (the main church in Milano). Famous musicians like Giuseppe Verdi used to drop by after a performance at the historic theater, La Scala, which is nearby.
There is a lot of rhubarb at the markets at the moment. Last week I made a rhubarb pie and tried to recreate the liqueur that was so appreciated in the royal Italian court. My rhubarb crostata (short crust pie) has the right mix of butter in the pastry and a balance of tart rhubarb, sugar and orange with a hint of cardamom. The tart is blind baked first – and it remains crisp even after the rhubarb has been added. The secret is that a tablespoon of flour and one of sugar are placed on the cooked base before the fruit is added.
Enjoy this crostata with a dollop of double cream and a cup of coffee – and imagine you are at the Cafe’ Zucca in Milano, watching the well dressed Milanese walk by.
Crostata di rabarbaro
125 g butter, room temperature
30g icing sugar
240g plain white flour
zest of half a lemon
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Bunch of rhubarb stalks, washed and cut into 5cm pieces (about 500g)
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon orange zest
4 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed
1 tablespoon white flour
1/2 cup caster sugar, plus one table spoon extra
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line a 23 cm pie tin with a removable base with aluminum foil.
Place butter and icing sugar in a bowl and process/beat until creamy. In a bowl, mix together the 240g flour, salt and lemon zest. Add the the butter mix and process/beat until it is a crumbly texture -which takes about a minute. Add the egg and process/beat until the mixture comes together – less than a minute. Remove the mixture and put the lot on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Place another sheet of plastic wrap over this and using a rolling pin, roll the pastry into a disc and enclose in the plastic wrap. Allow to rest in the fridge for 45 minutes.
Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll it between the two sheets of plastic so that it is quite thin. You should have enough to cover the base and sides of the pie plus some left over to put a lattice on top. Line the base of the prepared tin with the pastry and blind bake the pie shell for 10 minutes with pie weights (or dried beans/rice) and for 5 minutes with the weights removed. Don’t forget to put baking paper under the weights and also prick the pie bases in several places with a fork. The pie base should be cooked through and a light golden colour.
While the pie shell is cooking, place the cut rhubarb, orange juice, orange zest, cardamom and 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan. Cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes until the rhubarb softens but maintains its shape. Remove from the heat. Strain the liquid from the cooked rhubarb.
Take 1 tablespoon of the flour and one of caster sugar and scatter them over the cooked pie base. Spoon the cooked rhubarb on the pie base and make a lattice over the top of the pie with the remaining pastry (which you would have put back in the fridge while you were blind baking the pie shell).
Cook for 35 – 40 minutes or until the fruit is soft and the lattice is a deep golden colour. Place on a cooling rack and remove the sides of the tin. There you have it – a crostata with rabarbaro, fit for the afternoon tea of a Milanese. It is lovely served on its own but a dollop of whipped cream or mascarpone would not go astray.