The perfect jug and a helping of serendipity…

I’ve found the perfect jug. Designed by Emma Lacey, it has a thumb-sized dimple in just the right place. Pick it up and it feels as solid, safe and simple as a pair of sturdy shoes, brown bread and butter, a picnic on the beach or rhubarb and custard.

Serendipity is both a fantastic word and a brilliant concept. My new jug had already made me think of rhubarb and custard – serendipity sorted things out so that I got to eat it too. My very clever friend, the one who knows how to grow things and even better loves giving them away, left a basket of home-grown rhubarb and a batch of her hens’ eggs on the doorstep this morning.

It’s virtually a ready-meal from the supermarket – the contents of the basket are more than three quarters of the way to being a bowl of baked rhubarb and vanilla custard. And that is what they became….

Rhubarb Baked With Cardamon and Kaffir Lime Leaf and Served With Vanilla Custard

Serves 3 or 4

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C

600g rhubarb cut into slices

2 tablespoons sugar

5 or 6 cardamon pods

1 kaffir lime leaf

Zest and juice of a tangerine

6 egg yolks

125g caster sugar

600 ml milk

One vanilla pod

Combine the rhubarb with the tangerine zest and juice, 2 tablespoons of sugar, the cardamon pods and the kaffir lime leaf and spread out in a shallow ovenproof dish. I had been planning to add a star anise to the dish instead, but spotted the lime leaves and the cardamon pods in the cupboard first. I discovered that they brought a delicious zingy perfume to the rhubarb – another dose of serendipity as it turned out. Bake for 25 minutes until soft but not mushy.

To make the custard, whisk the yolks with the sugar until pale and glossy. Warm the milk with the vanilla pod to boiling point. Add the milk to the egg mixture. Tip back into a clean pan and stir over a low heat until the custard starts to thicken slightly. Don’t stop stirring and don’t let the custard overheat.

Heap the rhubarb on a plate, add a generous puddle of custard and you will be as far away from school dinner rhubarb and custard as it is possible to be. And that too is serendipitous.

What a lot of rhubarb

The same friend who gave me The Alice B Toklas Cookbook for my birthday has lent me a copy of the hard to find Futurist Cookbook. Published in Italian in 1932, it’s a manifesto for the food of the future designed to liberate us from convention, dullness and pasta. The recipes which combine touch, sound and smell include one called Aerofood, composed of a slice of fennel, an olive and a kumquat, served with sandpaper, velvet and silk. Only the sandpaper need not be eaten apparently, but it must be fingered as the food is devoured. As the diners swallow down the velvet and silk confection, waiters are on hand to douse their heads with a large spray can.

The trouble with breaking with convention is that it can become a fashion in its own right. Which is how I found myself attempting to smoke salmon over Lapsang tea leaves this week. It’s apparently effortless, apparently fun and apparently delicious. Yes, to the first, no to the second and an absolute ‘you have to be kidding’ to the third. The choking, bitter, billowing smoke caused my neighbour to knock at the back door to ask if we needed help. When the salmon was ‘ready’, my daughter spat her piece out, my son ate his holding his nose and our spaniel turned her back for the first time in her life. An appetiser of velvet, silk – hell, even the sandpaper – would have been tastier.

There’s a wonderful line in a Jilly Cooper novel that ‘the only way to get the garden out of your nails is to wash your hair’. I can report that the only way to get Lapsang smoke out of your hair is to wash it not once, but three times. And I wanted to take my son’s saxophone-cleaning brush to my poor, choked throat.

Thankfully, the neighbour who asked if we were ok had a bundle of rhubarb under his arm. So we abandoned the salmon and set to work on something a little more delicious. Rhubarb ice-cubes.

Rhubarb Ice Cubes

Rhubarb sticks – I used six chubby ones and ended up with half a litre of syrup

For each stick of rhubarb, five teaspoons of caster sugar and half a cup of water

Half a star anise for every two sticks

A bay leaf for every two sticks

Cut the sticks into 2cm pieces – snipping it straight into the pan with scissors is the quickest way. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for fifteen minutes. Allow to cool slightly and strain into a jug (don’t be tempted to mush it down with a ladle because it will release an estuarial sandy-coloured slurry into your gorgeous pink brew). Let it drip until there’s no more liquid left in the pulp. The rhubarb syrup is delicious stirred into a cocktail, but it’s more showy to freeze it. I drank my cubes with gin and tonic.

I think the futurists would have liked rhubarb ice cubes. But there aren’t any futurists left. Like tea-smoked salmon, they went out of fashion.