Raiding the rhubarb patch
The patch of rhubarb in our backyard is sorely neglected. Well, the rhubarb is technically in our neighbor's backyard -- but right along the property line, and neither of us ever makes use of it.
Each year I think, "Maybe I should make some jam, or a rhubarb cake to take to work." But before I can get such a task accomplished, the plant has sent up its seed plume, and the stalks are past their prime.
With the cool and wet weather we've been having this year, there might have been a chance of concocting something with the rhubarb yet -- except Hubby Bryan chopped most of it down during a recent weeding frenzy.
My mom would never have let that happen. Since she didn't have a viable patch of her own, Mom was a rhubarb raider -- begging stalks from rhubarb-growing friends, and perhaps even sneaking in under the cover of night to cut a few more.
Consequently, her long out-of-print cookbook, "Mixing & Musing" by Dorthy Rickers, contains quite a few rhubarb recipes. One of my favorite rhubarb-related references in the book is about my grandmother, Margaret Thompson. Since she died when I was only 2, my memories of her are all secondhand, such as this remembrance of Mom's:
Among all the rhubarb pie recipes printed through the years, none was exactly like the one my mother used to make. Hers was a very special talent with pies. In our Benton County, Iowa, farm kitchen, she would turn out mouth-watering pies by the half dozens early in the morning before one could ask, 'How many men in the threshing crew today?"
But her pies weren't just for the threshers or hay-balers. They were an almost everyday baking ritual, for my dad, the hired hand and my brothers, all with hearty appetites.
It was customary that Mother would make a two-crust pie and a single-crust pie nearly every morning, especially in summer when fresh fruits were abounding in our grove ... mulberry, cherry, apple, rhubarb ...
Ah, that rhubarb pie.
In my file, there are several recipes in Mother's handwriting which I treasure, but not the open-face rhubarb pie. She would probably say, "Just make it by guess and by gosh."
Try to recall how Mother did it and just make it without a recipe, my taste buds urged me. To my amazement, it turned out almost like Mother used to make. Not exactly, of course. Impossible. But almost.
Of course, it wouldn't be right to discuss rhubarb without reprinting what Mom titled the Quintessential Rhubarb Dessert. So here is Grandma Margaret's pie recipe as well as that bears-repeating dessert.
Rhubarb Custard Pie
Beat 3 eggs; add 1 scant cup sugar mixed with 1 tablespoon flour and dash of salt. Add ½ teaspoon vanilla. Stir in 2 cups finely cut red rhubarb and 1 cup half and half cream.
Pour mixture into an 8-inch unbaked pie shell Sprinkle with just a whisper of sugar and cinnamon mixture.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes; then at 350 or 325 for 30 to 40 minutes, until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Serve slightly warm.
First Layer: Combine 2 cups flour, ¼ cup sugar (or a little less), pinch of salt and 1 cup butter. Press in a 9- by 13-inch pan. Bake at 325 degrees 25 minutes.
Second Layer: Cook 5 cups rhubarb, cut fine, until rhubarb is almost tender. Add 2¾ cups sugar, ¼ cup flour, 6 egg yolks and 2/3 cup half and half. Cook until thickened. Cool slightly. Pour over baked crust.
Third Layer: Beat 6 egg whites, 2/3 cup sugar and ½ teaspoon cream of tartar. Spread atop cooked rhubarb mixture. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly brown, 10 to 15 minutes.