Our Favourite Rhubarb Dessert

Millefoglia con crema alla grappa e rabarbaro transformed into Phyllo with Grappa Cream and Rhubarb
Millefoglia con crema alla grappa e rabarbaro transformed into Phyllo with Grappa Cream and Rhubarb

“What’s in this?”

Whenever I serve my favourite rhubarb dessert, this is first question someone asks.

The recipe’s Italian title, Millefoglia con crema alla grappa e rabarbaro, reveals the secret ingredient. Vanilla may be rhubarb’s best friend, but grappa is its soulmate.

A good digestif on its own

A digestif since the fourteenth century, grappa is a Northern Italian spirit made by distilling the pomace (grape seeds, stalks, and stems) left over from the wine-making process—giving the potent drink a bouquet of aromas. In the 1960s, producers began upgrading the quality of grappa by making it with a single varietal of grape and aging it in wooden barrels.

Magellan and I first tasted grappa in the early aughts at Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant in New York. Mario suggested a flight of three grappas to taste their differences and ease our pasta-filled bellies (and boost his restaurant’s sales). Though Mario has since been revealed as a restaurateur bad-boy, it is to him we owe our debt to the pleasures of grappa.

To make this recipe, investing in a bottle of grappa is essential. But the rest of the ingredients are commonplace: cream, eggs, sugar, rhubarb.

The recipe comes from Gourmet, March 2003, from the magazine’s acclaimed food editor, Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez (who was called “the resident brain trust on all things Italian cooking”). 

Gina Marie Miraglia Enriquez (Photo: Epicurious)

in her book Save Me the Plums, Ruth Reichl, the last editor of Gourmet before the magazine folded, describes Gina Marie:

Gina Marie was a voluptuous Bensonhurst (an area in Brooklyn) beauty, with long dark ringlets and down-to-earth hair. Her entire extended family lived within a few blocks of one another, and we listened enviously as she told about the meals her mother made. A dozen people—even the parish priest–sat down to Sunday dinners of homemade lasagna, marinated eggplant, beef braciola…It seemed like a charmed existence, something out of the past.

Gina explains Millefoglie.

Millefoglie is the Italian version of the French pastry mille-feuille (meaning “thousand leaves”), which is then layered with fruit and cream, napoleon-style. We like Julia brand grappa best for this particular recipe — it’s slightly sweeter and has a more well-rounded flavor than other grappas we’ve tasted.

When I first made this dessert twenty years ago, I followed Gourmet’s recipe and used puff pastry, even though I’m not fond of the stuff. It’s expensive to buy and difficult to make at home. Then I started using phyllo pastry instead—deliziosa!

I like what Rebecca May Johnson writes, that a recipe is an epic with infinite potential translators. I think of it like a jazz score. In each performance, the players acknowledge their responsibility to the ensemble, historical and present, be it Marcella Hazan or Miles Davis, the parmesan or the piano, the dinner guests or the concert ticket holders.

I still remember the time we served this dessert to our Greek friend Kiky (whose mother still makes her own phyllo dough).  “Okay I think this is the best dessert you’ve ever made for us,” Kiky said, and asked her second question. “Is it hard to do?”

No, as you can see below.

The only question I ask myself after I’ve made it is, “Shall I make this again this year?”

Millefoglia con crema alla grappa e rabarbaro: Phyllo with Grappa Cream and Rhubarb

Adapted from a recipe by Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez featured in the March 2003 edition of Gourmet magazine, this is a wonderful way to enjoy rhubarb. Instead of puff pastry, I use phyllo dough: simpler, cheaper and lighter. Don't be intimidated by the long list of instructions; this is not difficult to make, and the grappa custard can be made a day ahead of serving. Feel free to be artistic when drizzling the rhubarb syrup atop the layers of phyllo, grappa cream and rhubarb. (I always have leftover grappa cream. You could proportion it out evenly and use it all (which I feel is a tad too much) or eat it up as a separate dessert on its own the next day.)
Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 21/4 cups whole milk
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 2 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3 Tbsp grappa
  • 2/3 cup chilled whipping cream
  • 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb stalks, cut diagonally into 1 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp grappa
  • 8 sheets phyllo pastry
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp icing sugar

Instructions

  • Bring 2 cups milk and the salt to a boil in a three-quart heavy saucepan. Whisk together yolks, sugar, flour, cornstarch, and remaining 1/4 cup milk in a bowl. Add one-third of the hot milk to the yolk mixture in a slow stream, whisking, then add the rest into the hot milk mixture in the saucepan.
  • Bring the custard to a boil over moderate heat, whisking for another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in butter until it's melted, then stir in the grappa. Transfer the custard to a bowl , cover with wax paper and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  • Simmer the rhubarb, water, sugar and grappa in a three-quart heavy saucepan, uncovered, stirring gently once or twice until the rhubarb is tender but not falling apart, about 4 minutes after it boils. Set the pan in a bowl of ice and cold water and let stand for a few minutes to stop the cooking.
  • Slowly pour the rhubarb mixture into a sieve set over a bowl. Reserving the rhubarb, return the syrup to the saucepan and boil until it's reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes. Keep the rhubarb and syrup separate and covered at room temperature until you are ready to use them.
  • Heat the oven to 400°F. Lightly brush the melted butter on a cookie sheet. Lay a sheet of phyllo dough on it and brush with more of the melted butter. Repeat with the other seven layers. Bake for 10 minutes. When cooled, cut the phyllo into 16 squares.
  • Beat the cream for the custard until it holds soft peaks. Whisk the custard to loosen it, then fold in the whipped cream gently but thoroughly.
  • Dollop 3 big tablespoons or so of the grappa cream on each of 8 dessert plates. Top each with some rhubarb, using half of it. Add a phyllo square on top of the cream and rhubarb. Make another layer with the remaining grappa cream, rhubarb, and phyllo squares, then top with phyllo shards. Sift icing sugar evenly over each serving and drizzle with the rhubarb syrup. Enjoy with a glass of grappa.

Navigation

Gourmet, March 2003, Link to the original recipe for Millefoglia con crema alla grappa e rabarbaro.

Johnson, Rebecca May. Small Fires. London: Pushkin Press, 2023.

Reich, Ruth. Save Me the Plums. New York City: Random House, 2019.

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