Why sour fruits like rhubarb and loquats are a baker's delight
I’ve just come back from London, where spring is trying its best to make an appearance—there’s cherry blossom on the trees, flowers on dresses and the sun is intermittently glinting off the Thames. At the neighbourhood farmer’s market I visited there was spring lamb, oceans of leafy vegetables and, for me, the highlight of the season: rhubarb.
Rhubarb fans don’t look forward to it the same way we anticipate mangoes in India. You’ll never find anyone sitting under a tree working their way through a bucket of rhubarb. In fact, rhubarb is so sour in its natural state that it is virtually inedible, although I remember, as a child, the mouth-puckering joy of dipping it in bowls of sugar. But when sweetened in pies, crumbles and cakes, it is divine. In fact, as a general rule, sour fruit is usually best for baking—fruit which is too sweet, like mangoes, is usually disappointing.
Rhubarb is rare in India but this week I consoled myself with loquats, one of the first soft fruits of our early summer, soon to be followed by apricots, peaches and cherries. While they are much loved in India, elsewhere loquats receive short shrift. Legendary British food writer Jane Grigson once came across the fruit in France but failed to see the appeal.
They were brought to Britain, she tells us in her compendious tome Fruit Book, by Sir Joseph Banks, who had travelled round the world with Captain Cook in 1770-71. Banks was of the opinion, misguided in Grigson’s view, that loquats could be as good as the mango. “He must have been unfortunate in the mangoes he met with on his way," she writes. “The loquat is not a fruit of the gods or the poets, even, I suspect, in its native lands. Princesses changed into peaches, mangoes changed into princesses, but loquats have never been in this league. They are comely and refreshing, not glamorous."
Many will take issue with her but I had never thought of baking with loquats as they often seem too mushy and blandly sweet to contribute much. But some slightly under-ripe fruit I bought at the market this week changed my mind.
The cake is a version of one I always make with rhubarb and the slight sourness of the loquats didn’t disappoint. The cornmeal (you could also use polenta but not cornflour!) gives the crumb an interesting crunchy texture and conjures images of rocking chairs on the porch in the American Deep South. The French dessert clafoutis is one I make often during the summer months, usually with cherries in the traditional manner, but the loquats make a lovely alternative.
Loquat, Honey and Cornmeal Cake
For the fruit
25g unsalted butter
For the cake
175g plain flour (maida)
1 tsp baking powder
One by fourth tsp bicarbonate of soda
One by fourth tsp salt
125g butter, softened
100g caster sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
180g plain yogurt
Wash and dry the loquats, remove the seeds and cut the fruit into quarters. Melt butter and honey in a pan and let it caramelize slightly. Add the chopped loquats and stir them around in the caramel for 2 minutes. Leave to cool while you prepare the cake mixture.
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Grease and line a 23cm cake tin with baking parchment paper. Sift flour, cornmeal, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a bowl and whisk to mix. Beat together the butter and caster sugar in a food processor, or with a hand-held mixer, until pale and fluffy. Slowly beat in the eggs and vanilla extract. With a metal spoon, fold in the flour/cornmeal mixture and the yogurt. Mix well, then stir in the loquats and their honey caramel.
Scrape the cake mixture into the prepared tin, gently smoothen the surface, then bake for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Served warm, with cream, this is a lovely dessert. Cold, the following morning, it’s just as good with coffee.
400g loquats, cut in half and seeds removed
2 tbsp honey
75g plain flour
A pinch of salt
75g caster sugar
225ml full-cream milk
Grease a 23cm tart tin. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Roll the loquats in honey, then place them, cut side down, in the tin. In a mixer or with a whisk, mix the eggs, flour, salt, sugar, cream and milk until you have a smooth batter. Pour the batter over the loquats, then bake for 30-40 minutes until the clafoutis is browned and puffed up. Serve warm, sprinkled with caster sugar, but it’s also good cold.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.