I sometimes think I was destined to live in Wakefield (never let it be said that I don’t aim high) – for one reason and one reason only: rhubarb.
My adopted hometown is at the epicentre of the Rhubarb Triangle – a nine square-mile stretch of West Yorkshire, famed for producing what must surely be the North of England’s finest culinary export: Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb. Those garish pink stems – cultivated in complete darkness in giant sheds just off the M62 – were awarded Protected Designation of Origin status in 2012, putting them on the same lofty gastronomic pedestal as Champagne, Gorgonzola and Jersey Royal new potatoes. And rightly bloody so, I say.
I am completely obsessed with rhubarb. If ever I made some *really* bad life choices (as opposed to the bothersome-but-far-from-catastrophic ones at which I seem to excel) and found myself on death row, you can bet your bottom dollar my request for a last meal would involve rhubarb and custard (in truth it would probably involve an eclectic menu of sushi, followed by a Sunday roast, rhubarb crumble, a cheese board, a bottle of Chianti and a cup of tea – but hey, it’s my last ever meal, right?). That nostalgic, school dinner combination of tart, stewed rhubarb paired with unctuous, vanilla-infused custard is pure manna from heaven to my tastebuds. So it does kinda’ feel like providence that I ended up living somewhere where the rhubarb grows plentiful and delicious.
Which is why it had to be a rhubarb-themed brunch to coincide with Wakefield’s annual Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb (somewhere in the outer reaches of the Internet there’s a gif of Don Draper face-palming on loop at the decision to rebrand the event from the somewhat snappier, “Rhubarb Festival”. Or if there isn’t there should be). And I had just the thing in mind: rhubarb and custard breakfast buns; my favourite classic pairing in a buttery Danish pastry.
Sweet, enriched dough is something that’s terrified me for quite some time. And the reason for this particular yeast affliction (sorry) is Paul Hollywood. For every person inspired to patisserie perfection, sourdough satisfaction or macaron magnificence by the Great British Bake-Off, I’m betting there’s a perfectionist, like me, terrified to have a bash at a brioche lest the barb-tongued silver fox spontaneously appear in their kitchen and critique their cack-handed kneading or inadequate proving. No, “Better never to try than to try and fail” has long been my motto, and why change the habit of a lifetime?
Well, this ridiculously easy recipe from Smitten Kitchen could be one reason why. I first made it at Christmas, which husband and I hosted for the first time last year. I was looking for a special, but not-too-heavy breakfast dish for Christmas morning – something fancy enough to kick off that most festive of days in style, yet not so filling as to spoil the main event (no, better leave that to all the chocolates, nuts and canapés I invariably scoff before the turkey’s even made it into the oven); something that could, over the years, become a bit of a Johnson festive ritual.
Smitten’s cranberry orange breakfast buns were just the ticket. I’d go out on a limb and say they’re practically foolproof too – given that I decided to make them after a mulled wine or several late on Christmas Eve. I completely ballsed up the filling (note to self: halving an ingredients list when your mental arithmetic is, shall we say, a little impaired is a VERY bad idea), which proceeded to ooze a ton of cranberry juice, all but preventing that crucial second prove. I thought I was going to have a brunch-tastrophe on my hands, but after half an hour in the oven the following morning, the buns were puffed up, golden and utterly delicious – just like the beautiful photographs on Deb Perelman’s blog.
So, my plan to mark Rhubarb Fest 2014 was to adapt this most straightforward of dough recipes and then, instead of wintry cranberries and orange, fill it with a more season-appropriate combo of crème patissière and roasted rhubarb; topped, once baked, with a drizzle of pretty pastel pink icing courtesy of the leftover rhubarb juice. Amazeballs, right?
Err, except it didn’t work. As the pictures show, the buns looked amazing (she says, modestly) – better, in fact, than the first attempt since I actually proved the dough properly this time – but the filling just wasn’t quite right. Indeed, the ratio of custard to rhubarb was completely wrong, and the end result was cloying – kind of like eating a scone without any jam or butter, and ending up with a ball of mushed up carb stuck to the roof of your mouth (we’ve all been there). Not what I was going for at all.
It wasn’t disgusting – I mean, I totally ate it all – so I’m going to tinker away and will hopefully have a mind-blowingly awesome recipe to share with y’all soon. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures and, if you have yeast issues too (it’s ok – I read somewhere that 4/5 people suffer with them at some point in their lives [never let it be said either that I don’t milk a pun for all its worth, however inappropriate]), I urge you to head over to Smitten Kitchen and try the original recipe.
At least I’ve learned one thing from this brunch misadventure – trying and failing isn’t all that bad, if the worst you end up with is a mouthful of mushy dough-ball that you have to dislodge with your fingers (TMI?). A brunch story with a moral – kind of like He-Man.