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Spring is all about renewal and setting up the garden for the year to come. It is one of those funny times when we are between the main fruit seasons of autumn and summer and for those of us with a sweet tooth it can seem like slim pickings in the garden. That is when we need to get creative and make use of what is around us.
One of my favourite spring plants is rhubarb.
It is one of the first plants ready to use in the garden and can be used for a wide variety of desserts.
First-of-the-season rhubarb has amazing flavour and simply roasted in a hot oven with a little vanilla sugar, it's just magic.
Bananas are another great kitchen standby and few people can say no to a good old-fashioned banana cake.
Serving it as a sandwich with homemade honeycomb ice cream has become one of my new obsessions and it is likely to be a hit with both young and old.
A sweet classic French provincial rum and raisin tart makes use of an unlikely spring vegetable, silver beet.
Don't tell anyone what is in it and they will love it.
Served with rum and raisin ice cream, it is delicious and it definitely makes us rethink how we can use the garden right now.
Summer may be a long way off, but there is plenty of good eating to be had in the meantime, so get cooking.
• Bevan and Monique Smith own the multi-award winning Riverstone Kitchen, on SH1 in North Otago, just south of the Waitaki bridge.
Vanilla panna cotta with roast rhubarb and almond biscotti
Makes 12 panna cottas
3½ gelatine leaves (gold strength)
150ml milk, chilled
120g caster sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 vanilla pod, cut lengthways and seeds scraped
15 sticks rhubarb, washed and cut into 5cm pieces
¾ cup vanilla sugar
12 almond biscotti (optional)
Break gelatine sheets into thirds and place in a small bowl with milk to soften.
Place half of the cream into a small saucepan with sugar, lemon zest and vanilla pod and seeds and bring almost to the boil over a medium heat. Remove from heat and pour on to the softened gelatine and milk. Remove vanilla pod and stir until gelatine is completely dissolved. Half fill a large bowl with ice and place the bowl containing the panna cotta mixture on top. Allow to cool, stirring often with a wooden spoon to prevent gelatine setting on the bottom of the bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk remaining cream to a soft peak. When panna cotta mixture starts to thicken, gently fold in the cream. Pour into 12 125ml plastic dariole moulds, lightly greased with canola spray. Refrigerate for at least three hours or overnight.
To roast rhubarb, heat oven to 200degC. Place rhubarb on a baking paper-lined oven tray and sprinkle generously with vanilla sugar. Place in oven and cook for 10 to 12 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and juices are starting to run. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.
When panna cottas are set, gently run the tip of a paring knife around the edge of the mould to open a small air pocket.
Turn the mould over and turn panna cotta out on to a serving plate. Serve with roast rhubarb, cooking juices and almond biscotti.
Note - vanilla sugar can easily be made by either storing dried used vanilla pods in caster sugar or mixing a quarter of a teaspoon of vanilla paste into 1 cup of caster sugar. Keeps indefinitely.
Makes 1 loaf
4 free-range egg whites
140g caster sugar
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
120g plain flour
120g whole natural almonds, lightly roasted
Heat oven to 150degC. Whisk egg whites to a firm peak. Continue to whisk, slowly adding the sugar and beat until whites become glossy and thick.
Gently fold in the zest, flour and almonds. Spoon mixture into a baking paper-lined loaf tin and bake for 35 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the tin. When loaf is completely cool, remove from tin, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze until ready to use.
Remove from freezer, defrost slightly and slice, as thinly as possible, with a sharp bread knife. Lay biscotti out on a baking paper-lined baking tray and bake at 100degC for 30 to 45 minutes. Turn the oven off and allow to cool completely. Once cool store in an airtight container for up to 10 days.
Banana cake and honeycomb ice-cream sandwich
4 free-range eggs525g caster sugar100g creme fraiche500g plain flour2 tsp baking soda tsp cinnamon225ml vegetable oil2 tsp vanilla essence9 ripe bananas, 7 mashed and 2 sliced cup raw brown sugar cup white standard sugar tsp mixed spice
Heat oven to 160degC. Place eggs and caster sugar into a mixing bowl and beat until pale and thick. Add creme fraiche, vegetable oil, vanilla essence and beat until just combined. Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl and mix to combine.
Gently fold dry ingredients and mashed banana into the egg mixture, until just combined, being careful not to over-mix. Pour batter into a baking paper-lined 28cm cake tin with removable base. Scatter sliced banana on top.
Place raw brown sugar, white sugar and mixed spice into a small bowl and mix until combined. Sprinkle over the top of the cake and bake for 1½ hours or until just cooked. Test with a skewer or a small sharp knife to check if it is done. Remove cake from oven and allow to cool completely before serving.
To serve, cut cake into thin slices and place a small scoop of honeycomb ice cream between two pieces of banana cake. Place each ice-cream sandwich on a plate and finish with another scoop of honeycomb ice cream.
Honeycomb Ice cream
Makes 1.6 litres
1 litre cream
250g caster sugar
12 free-range egg yolks
2 cups honeycomb, lightly shattered
Place cream and half of the sugar into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks and remaining sugar until light and pale. As the cream comes to the boil, whisk into the egg and sugar mixture and combine well.
Return ice-cream base to the saucepan and heat to 80degC stirring continuously. (Use a heatproof thermometer to test the temperature.) Remove from the heat and chill down over a bowl of ice.
Once completely cool churn in an ice-cream machine as per manufacturer's instructions. When ice cream is almost finished churning, add honeycomb and churn for four to five more turns until mixed through. Freeze as normal.
2 Tbsp water
1½ tsp baking soda
Heat water, glucose and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over a high heat until sugar syrup begins to caramelise and turn a light golden colour.
Add baking soda and whisk vigorously, being careful to avoid hot steam as honeycomb expands. Pour immediately on to a baking paper-lined baking tray and allow to cool. Once completely cool, shatter and store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Tip: Pour honeycomb on to a large oven tray as it expands more rapidly than you would expect!
Rum and raisin tart with rum and raisin ice cream
110g caster sugar
3 free-range eggs
3 free-range egg yolks
180g raisins, soaked overnight in dark rum
60g pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 Tbsp dark rum
1 cup silver beet, blanched and excess water squeezed out
Heat oven to 160degC. Lightly whisk sugar, eggs, yolks and cream together until well combined. Stir in raisins, pine nuts, rum and silver beet until well mixed through and pour into tart case. Bake for 40min to 50min or until just set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 30min before serving with rum and raisin ice cream.
Rum and raisin ice cream
Makes 1.5 litres
1 litre cream
250g caster sugar
12 free-range egg yolks
1½ cups raisins
¾ cup dark rum
Soak raisins in rum in a bowl overnight. Place cream and half the caster sugar into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks and remaining sugar until light and pale.
As the cream comes to the boil, whisk into the egg and sugar mixture and combine well. Return ice-cream base to the saucepan and heat to 80degC, stirring continuously. (Use a heatproof thermometer to test the temperature.) Remove from the heat and chill down over a bowl of ice. Once completely cool churn in an ice-cream machine as per manufacturer's instructions. When ice cream is almost finished churning, add raisins and rum and churn for four or five more turns until mixed through. Freeze as normal.
175g plain flour
75g caster sugar
90g cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 free-range egg, beaten
Heat oven to 180degC. Place flour, sugar and butter into a food processor and blend until the butter is incorporated into the flour. Add egg and continue to blend until a soft dough starts to form. Roll dough out into a 30cm circle between two sheets of plastic wrap. Refrigerate for five minutes before removing plastic wrap from one side and lining a 28cm tart mould with the pastry with remaining plastic wrap side facing up. Remove plastic, cover with baking paper and fill tart with baking beans. Place pastry in the refrigerator and chill for 15min before removing. Place into the oven and blind bake for 15min to 20min or until pastry is golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before removing baking beans and paper.
Panna cotta and rhubarb: A delicate pink Methode Traditionnelle. We recently tried the Johanneshof New Dawn Pink Methode 2010 which was a perfect match.
Banana cake sandwich: Something sweet and sticky. We suggest the Pegasus Bay Encore Noble Riesling 2008.
Rum and raisin tart: Another noble riesling! Ostler Blue House Vines Noble Riesling 2011.