Rhubarb. What the hell is it anyway? It looks like red celery, is tart as all get out in its raw state and is the darling of hipster joints and back road country cafes. It shows up in sweets like pies and cobblers, jams beautifully and works well with savory dishes sometimes. Oh and don’t forget, the leaves are toxic. Sounds just like something you should cook with, doesn’t it?
So, seriously, what exactly is it? According to handy dandy Wikipedia … “Rhubarb is a group of plants that belong to the genus Rheum in the family Polygonaceae. They are herbaceous perennial plants growing from short, thick rhizomes. They have large leaves that are somewhat triangular shaped with long fleshy petioles. They have small flowers grouped in large compound leafy greenish-white to rose-red inflorescences. While the leaves are toxic, the plants have medicinal uses, but most commonly the plant’s stalks are cooked and used in pies and other foods for their tart flavor.” (psssst … are you still awake?)
So there. Does that clear it up? Let me add my spin on that technical mumbo jumbo. Around here, rhubarb grows like crazy in many backyards and typically shows up in the farmers markets (and some grocery stores) in the late spring. It does indeed look a bit like singular stalks of red celery and can be quite tart and rather unpleasant when raw. It’s best when cooked slowly with a healthy dose of sugar and is particularly good in combination with strawberries, raspberries and citrus. A strawberry rhubarb pie is unbelievably tasty and with a lattice crust, quite the lovely picture. I’ve made a delightfully tart sorbet that when topped with cream soda, made a helluva treat.
Combined with raspberries and crowned with sugared biscuits, it makes a great cobbler. Don’t forget the jam – rhubarb jam is classic. This weekend I made a small batch of compote with the thought that I’d swirl it into some vanilla ice cream but it never made it that far. I ate half right out of the pan and the rest on my breakfast oatmeal the next day. Damn, was it good. If you’re looking for ideas, check out Smitten Kitchen – she’s got some great stuff.
The first outdoor Green City Market of the season was two weeks ago and it was QUITE the to-do. Folks were very excited about the whole thing – a sure sign that summer is officially here (almost.) Even at the early hour of 7:30am on a Wednesday, the market was a buzz of activity with lots of greens, vegetable starts, stalls full of asparagus and yes, rhubarb. I bought some and then promptly forgot about it. I do that sometimes.
So, after discovering it languishing in the back of my fridge, I made a pie this weekend. Strawberries aren’t quite here yet so I wanted to try something else; something different. I recently picked up Pie by Ken Haedrich. A WHOLE book on pie. 300 recipes. Hot damn. Flipping through, the recipe for Rhubarb Custard Pie caught my eye. What the hell … why not? Diced rhubarb, lots of sugar, spices, salt and a few eggs are stirred together. I made a few tweaks (a little rum anyone??) and poured the mixture into the pie shell. During baking, the rhubarb rose to the top, baked up soft and tender then crusted over a bit. Underneath, the sugar and eggs formed a sort of gooey layer, not quite a true custard but a little similar to the goo in a pecan pie.
I have to tell you, it was delicious. A little tart, a lot sweet, creamy, a bit crunchy – all enveloped in a buttery crust. Mighty, mighty fine and I couldn’t stop nibbling at it. I’m more than happy to add this to my pie repertoire and you should as well. Too bad rhubarb is only around for a few weeks, though I bet this would be good with a lot of fruit – peaches and apricots come to mind. Be sure to try this out before rhubarb disappears or wait ‘til next year, which would just a shame.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: PRETTY BIG. It’s pie. There’s something about making a pie from scratch that earns instant bonus points. Pie is comforting, homey, nurturing, just plain good. There’s a satisfaction involved in pie making to which nothing else really compares. Go now – get some rhubarb pronto, while it’s still around. Make some pie. And be sure to throw in the toxic leaves factoid to everyone within earshot. Pie always tastes better with a side of danger. Up next: strawberry rhubarb pie with a lard crust. Oh yeah baby.
RHUBARB CUSTARD PIE
Makes one 9” pie, serves 8-ish; adapted from Pie by Ken Haedrich
single crust pie dough (I like this one lately)
3 cups diced fresh rhubarb, ½” pieces (about 13 ounces)
1 ½ cups sugar
3 Tablespoons unbleached all-purposed flour
pinch of kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
2 Tablespoons whole milk
2 teaspoons dark rum
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cold cut into small pieces
- Place rack in lower 1/3 of oven and preheat to 375°F.
- Roll the pie dough and place in a 9″ pie plate. Crimp the edges and freeze at least 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
- In a large bowl, combine the diced rhubarb, sugar, flour, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine the eggs, milk and dark rum.
- Add the egg mixture to the rhubarb mixture and stir until well combined.
- Remove the pie crust from the freezer and place on a Silpat or parchment paper lined sheet pan.
- Pour the rhubarb mixture into the frozen pie shell and dot the surface with the cold bits of butter.
- Bake 50-55 minutes, rotating halfway through baking, until the top is crusted over and the filling is set – it shouldn’t really jiggle when wiggled a bit.
- Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely – the filling needs time to set and will be a bit of a mess if you cut into it too soon.
- Best served the day it’s made but let’s face it – cold leftovers are still pretty tasty.