Bite of spring

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When I grew up in upstate New York, one of the first signs of spring was the emergence of rhubarb “knuckles” in the garden. We’d put on our rubbers, trek through the muddy ground, and use our fingers to rake away the dirt. And there they would be: the tiny ruby red nubs pushing up bravely through the soil.

Rhubarb is one of the first spring plants ready for harvest in the Northern hemisphere. Related to sorrel and rich in vitamin C and fiber, its color can range from deep red to pink to green with very little difference in flavor, although I prefer the color that the beautiful red hue can lend to my dishes. Rhubarb has a unique tart flavor that, when sweetened with sugar and combined with raspberries, strawberries, cherries or apples, adds a wonderful dimension to familiar fruit.

The best local rhubarb is available from mid-April through July, but some excellent tender red stalks are already showing up at Jim and Andy’s produce on Court Street. Crisp but tender, their rhubarb is crimson in color, slender, glossy and beautiful.

At Sweet Melissa’s, we use rhubarb in jams, muffins, cakes and crumbles, and, of course, in strawberry rhubarb pie. But for this recipe, I love the idea of tangy sweetened rhubarb set in a light custard that I flavored with pure vanilla extract and orange zest. I thought the rhubarb would further benefit from being paired with fresh raspberries and baked in a cookie-like crust.

It’s a great way to welcome spring.

Raspberry rhubarb custard tart with buttery walnut crust

For the crust

1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped by hand

3 tablespoons sugar

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg yolk

4 teaspoons heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the walnuts, sugar, flour, and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut the cold butter into the flour mixture until the butter is the size of medium peas. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.

In a separate small bowl, combine the egg yolk and the cream. Pour egg mixture into the well and toss gently with a fork until all of the flour mixture is moistened. Turn out onto the work surface and knead very briefly by hand to bring the dough together.

Form into a six-inch round flat disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Spray a nine-inch fluted tart pan with nonstick cooking spray. Lightly flour the work surface, and roll the dough into an 11-inch round and press into the tart pan. Don’t worry if the dough cracks or breaks, it is not a sensitive dough, you can patch it together and re-roll if needed.

Chill the crust for 20 minutes.

Dock the crust with a fork about 10 times across the bottom. Bake the crust for 20-25 minutes or until just golden. Set aside to cool before filling.

For the rhubarb compote

1/2 pound fresh rhubarb, leaves removed, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces (about two cups)

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup sugar

Zest of 1/2 orange

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the rhubarb, sugar and orange zest and cook while gently stirring over medium heat until the rhubarb is tender, about five minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the filling

1 cup fresh raspberries

1 large egg

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 teaspoon cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Prepared rhubarb compote

Place the tart crust on a lined cookie sheet. Scatter the raspberries into the bottom of the pre-baked crust. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the egg with the sugar, cornstarch and salt and whisk until smooth. Stir in the cream and vanilla. Gently stir the cooled rhubarb compote into the custard and mix to blend thoroughly. Pour the mixture over the raspberries into the tart shell.

Bake for 40-45 minutes or until set. Cool to room temperature and dust with powdered sugar and additional fresh raspberries for garnish before serving. May be served at room temperature or chilled.

Melissa Murphy is the chef/owner of Sweet Melissa Patisserie [175 Seventh Ave., between First and Second streets in Park Slope, (718) 788-2700; 276 Court St., between Butler and Douglass streets in Cobble Hill, (718) 855-3410]. Full menu at

Updated 12:21 pm, March 20, 2009
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