Memories of New York: Rhubarb-Strawberry Soup

I have many fond memories of my first long trip to New York City. It was the mid-90s, I was in graduate school, and the week I spent there was an adventure: walking up and down the avenues, crosstown on the streets, my first trip to the original Balducci’s, getting lost in Strand Books, gazing at the treasures in the Metropolitan museum, and seeing a Sondheim show on Broadway (Passion).

I also cooked a meal for my cousin and one of her friends. I don’t remember what I made for the salad or entree, but the dessert was memorable: rhubarb soup with caramel-nut-coated vanilla ice cream and strawberries. I found the recipe in a March 16, 1994 New York Times article about Chef Gray Kunz (formerly chef at Lespinasse, and currently cooking at Cafe Gray in the Time Warner Center).

The recipe below could easily be modified for different fruits in different seasons: berries or peaches in the summer, apples in the autumn, or dried fruit in the winter.

Rhubarb-Strawberry Soup with Praline-Encrusted Ice Cream
Adapted from “Collecting Secrets From Lespinasse” by Bryan Miller and Pierre Franey, New York Times, March 16, 1994.

Recipe Overview
The dessert requires several different preparations, so here is an outline to help you envision the process and be organized:

  1. Make the praline
  2. Make the rhubarb “stock” and chill it
  3. Prepare the fruit garnishes (strawberries and more rhubarb) while the rhubarb stock is cooking
  4. Assemble the dessert at the last minute

Non-Pantry Ingredient List (for 8 servings)
Because the ingredients are spread across several subrecipes, here are the ingredients that might not be in your pantry:

  • 15 cups fresh rhubarb
  • 1 pint vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup fresh strawberries
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1/2 cup nuts (hazelnuts and almonds, or your choice)

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup toasted nuts, coarsely chopped. Hazelnuts and almonds are a good combination.

This version of praline is a mixture of caramel and nuts. To make it, a sugar-water mixture is cooked until the sugar caramelizes, and then toasted nuts are added for just a few seconds before the mixture is turned out onto foil or a Silpat mat. For detailed instructions, consult a dessert cookbook, one of my previous posts, or epicurious. A word of warning: Molten sugar is very hot and sticky, and therefore can cause horrible burns. Shuna of Eggbeater (a professional pastry chef) suggests that you keep a bowl of ice water nearby in case of any incidents.

Chop the praline into a fine pieces using a heavy knife (a food processor is not recommended because the resulting powder will be too fine). Place the praline in a shallow bowl (ice cream scoops will be dipped into the mixture as part of the dessert assembly).

Rhubarb stock
12 cups chopped fresh rhubarb stems, trimmed of leaves
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or some vanilla extract)
2 cups sugar, or to taste
8 cups water

Combine the rhubarb, water, sugar and split vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan. If using vanilla extract, do not add it now. Turn the heat to medium-high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. If using a vanilla bean, pull the bean out of the pot after 15 minutes, let it cool briefly, then strip the vanilla seeds from the pod into the soup. Return the vanilla bean skin to the pot. Cook for 1 hour (for a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes). Pour the mixture through a fine sieve and let it drain naturally (do not press on the rhubarb). Chill thoroughly. Adjust the sweetness and sourness using sugar and lemon juice, if necessary.

3 cups fresh rhubarb stems, from the tender narrow end, sliced thinly on a bias
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup water

Combine the ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil, and cook for a few minutes until the rhubarb is tender. Place the pot in a bowl of ice water, and stir gently to cool it quickly and stop the cooking.

Dice enough fresh strawberries to make 1/2 cup.

Divide the diced strawberry and rhubarb pieces into 8 bowls. Pour some of the rhubarb “stock” into each bowl.

Scoop a ball of ice cream and set it into the bowl of crushed praline. Cover the ice cream with the praline by rolling it around in the bowl and spooning the powder on top. Transfer the ice cream to the one of the bowls. Repeat until each bowl is topped.

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