Along with Seville oranges, late January brings the first young spears of forced rhubarb into the shops, in a vivid pink that brightens up the vegetable basket. We always had rhubarb growing in my back garden when I was a child. Truth be told, it was about the only thing that grew reliably and the giant leaves completely took over a whole section of the yard. These weren’t the delicate pale pink stems of Yorkshire forced rhubarb but monster stalks, assertively red and triffid-like. I always loved them, whether dipped in caster sugar and eaten raw or cooked in my grandmother’s buttery shortcrust pies and swimming in heavy cream. I found it sad when I lived in the States that American culture had not really embraced rhubarb, mixing it with strawberries and trying to tone down its sour-sweet pleasures. So one of the great pleasures of British life for me is its January appearance, heralding a long season of rhubarby breakfasts, desserts and even savoury uses.

This recipe for a fragrant rhubarb compote has lots of potential uses. You can use it to top french toast, as I do here, or pancakes, or it would be lovely with yoghurt, honey, and granola. It would work as a dessert with ice cream and ginger cake, or on a lemony cheesecake. It could even be served with cold roast pork, in which case I might add star anise to the cooking mix.

The french toast, meanwhile, is the specialty of Mr Lemur. What makes it Chilean? It’s all about the condensed milk. Chileans are obsessed with condensed milk and find ways to put it into everything. Cooked, it becomes manjar, which is a variant of dulce de leche, and is also a popular breakfast item. (I know it seems faintly horrifying, but try it on toast with bacon. Then come back and thank me…) Anyway, Mr Lemur came up with this neat method of sweetening french toast effectively and making it more custardy at the same time. It produces a rich, unctuous toast that is cut nicely by the sour-sweetness of the rhubarb. If you are feeling ambitious, you might even try making your own condensed milk – Almost Bourdain has a great recipe. Even with storebought condensed milk, though, this recipe is a decadent pleasure.

Chilean french toast with rhubarb compote

  • bunch of 6-8 rhubarb stems
  • tbsp honey, preferable orange blossom or similar
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • loaf of brioche or challah bread
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 tbsp condensed milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • pinch salt
  • butter for frying

First, make the compote. Wash and slice the rhubarb into 2cm slices. Heat the honey in a heavy-bottomed pot until melted. Add the rhubarb and cardmom, stir well, bring to a boil and then turn the heat down low. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the rhubarb has become very soft but still has some shape. Remove the cardamom seeds. You can do this part in advance and refrigerate until needed.

For the french toast, whisk eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and milk in a rectangular container (a small brownie tray or lasagna pan works well). Slice your loaf thickly. Heat a flat, non-stick skillet and melt a small knob of butter. When butter is sizzling, dip the slices one by one into the milk and egg mix, turning several times to soak thoroughly. Fry the bread until nicely browned, turning once.

Serve immediately and top with warm compote. I don’t think maple syrup is needed here, but hey, knock yourself out…

Serves 3-4

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