Kate Johnson: Rhubarb will win your heart

Kate Johnson

Kate Johnson

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Personally, I find there is nothing quite like rhubarb to define summer. In Montana it could be found in every yard in the neighborhood. As a child, the preferred way to enjoy rhubarb was to cut the stock, get rid of the leaf, wash it up and promptly dip each bite into a cup filled with sugar - munching away. Some years ago, I purchased a rhubarb plant for my garden from our local Greenhouse Garden Center. It took two seasons before I did some research to find out that there are actually different varieties. I had been waiting and waiting for the red color I was used to as a child — when in fact, I had myself a green variety that had been ready for eating all along. The green color does not present as well in baked goods, syrup, jelly, etc. (at least not in my opinion), however, the flavor is a bit sweeter and in that regard, it has won my heart. Either way - anyone who has enjoyed a strawberry rhubarb pie or rhubarb crisp knows that red or green - it simply tastes divine!

After many years of baking/cooking the same rhubarb recipes over and over … jelly, syrup, crisp, pie, I wanted to find some different recipes. So over the past few years I have found some new and rediscovered some old ways to bake up rhubarb and I thought it would be nice to share a few of my favorites with you today.

Rhubarb Cake — a long lost recipe from my best childhood friend’s mother

Rhubarb Ice cream with a Carmel Swirl — New York Times Cooking

Rhubarb Custard Bars — New York Times Cooking (this one is REALLLLY GOOD!)

All three of these are superb recipes that are absolute crowd pleasers. And for the record, if you are not in the mood to deal with your rhubarb when it is ready to be harvested, simply freeze it for later! You can do this by cutting the stalks, removing the leaves, washing and cutting into pieces. There is nothing like a fresh rhubarb dessert in the middle of winter.



1 1/2 cups sugar (I only use 1 cup - as I prefer tart)

1/2 cup shortening

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup buttermilk mixed with 1 tsp baking soda

1 1/2-2 cups chopped rhubarb (I always go big on the rhubarb)

1 egg

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup black walnuts (or other)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the sugar and shortening then add the egg and vanilla and mix well. Mix the flour and salt together and alternate adding this and the buttermilk into the mixture until mixed all together. Pour into a greased and floured 9-by-9-inch and sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

Back in the old days you would warm 1 1/2 cups of whole milk with 1/3 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla in a sauce pan and pour a ladle over a slice of cake before eating. Today we are more prone to go with Cool Whip or vanilla ice cream.

Rhubarb Ice Cream with a Caramel Swirl

Yield: One scant quart


1 and 1/2 cups whole milk

1 and 3/4 cup plus 6 tablespoons granulated sugar

Pinch fine sea salt

1 vanilla bean split and scraped

4 large egg yolks lightly beaten

1 and 1/2 cups sour cream

3/4 pound rhubarb cut into 1/2-inch dice

½ cup heavy cream


In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, whisk together the milk, 3/4 cup sugar, the salt, the vanilla bean seeds and its pod. Simmer gently until sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and steep 30 minutes. Discard the vanilla pod and return mixture to a bare simmer.

Place the yolks in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in hot milk mixture. Scrape the custard back into the pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Whisk in sour cream. Chill at least 3 hours or overnight.

In a saucepan, combine the rhubarb with 1 cup sugar. Simmer until rhubarb is just tender and has begun releasing its juices, but has not started to fall apart, 4 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer rhubarb to a bowl. Continue to simmer the juices until syrupy, 5 to 10 minutes more. Pour the syrup over the rhubarb. Cool completely.

In a clean, dry and preferably nonstick skillet, sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over medium heat. When it begins to melt and lightly color, sprinkle in 2 more tablespoons and start swirling pan to help evenly distribute sugar. Add the final 2 tablespoons and cook, swirling pan until all the sugar has melted. Let cook, swirling occasionally, until the sugar syrup caramelizes and turns dark brown. Pour in the heavy cream and 2 tablespoons water (stand back; it may splatter). Simmer, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula until smooth. Cool completely.

Pour the custard base into an ice cream machine and churn. Add rhubarb compote for the last minute of churning.

Scrape a quarter of the caramel into the bottom of a freezer-proof quart container. Top with a quarter of the ice cream. Repeat layering until all of the caramel and ice cream has been used, ending with the ice cream. Freeze until firm for at least 2 hours and up to 1 week.

Rhubarb Custard Bars

Yield: 1 (9-inch) square pan

Serving: 9

Imagine lemon bars, but made with a tangy rhubarb curd instead of citrus, and you’ll get a sense of this sweet-tart confection. The rhubarb curls on top make it pretty, but they don’t add much in terms of flavor, so feel free to skip Step 5. With their crisp crust and soft topping, the bars are at their absolute best when served within a day of baking. But you can store leftovers in the fridge for up to five days. They’ll get a little soggy, but the flavor will still be excellent.


1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄3 cup granulated sugar

1⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt

3⁄4 cup cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks) cut into 1-inch pieces

10 ounces rhubarb sliced (2 1/2 cups), plus 1 slender red stalk for the top

1 1⁄4 cups granulated sugar (I cut this by 1/4 cup as I prefer tart)

4 large eggs

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 to 2 lemons)

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon finely grated orange or lemon zest

Pinch fine sea salt

Confectioners’ sugar for serving


Heat oven to 325 degrees and line a 9-by-9-inch pan with parchment paper, leaving two edges long so they overhang the pan by at least 1 inch. (This is for lifting the bars out later.)

In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar and salt. Add butter and process until a crumbly dough forms. Press dough into the lined pan in an even layer. Don’t clean out the food processor, you’re going to need it.

Bake crust until golden at the edges, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating halfway through. Transfer to a wire rack and raise oven temperature to 350 degrees.

While the crust is baking, make the filling. In a medium saucepan, combine the rhubarb slices and 1 cup sugar. Cook, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until rhubarb releases its juices. Raise heat and bring to a simmer. Keep simmering, stirring once in a while, until the rhubarb breaks down completely, about 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the rhubarb and juices to the food processor, and let it sit with the cover off until it cools down a bit, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, using a vegetable peeler, lay the very pink rhubarb stalk on its narrower side. From the edge of the stalk, peel a long strip from the stalk. Continue to peel strips from the stalk, flipping it around the other side to keep it even. (This makes it easier to peel, but don’t worry too much about getting uniform strips.) Line up peeled strips and cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Some may curl up, and that’s fine. You’ll have about 1 cup strips.

To the food processor, add the eggs, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, lemon juice, flour, zest and salt, and pulse until mixture is puréed. Pour into baked shortbread base, and carefully scatter the rhubarb strips on top. It should look a little like confetti. Bake the filling is set and puffy, 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely in the pan.

Once cool, use a butter knife to cut at the edges of the crust to release them from the pan, then use the parchment “handles” to lift up and transfer the pastry to a cutting board. Cut into 1 3/4-inch squares. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

Kate Johnson is a long-time resident of Carson City. She practices pharmacy locally at Costco Pharmacy and is an avid gardener, musician, cook and lover of dogs.


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