Rhubarb is an interesting plant. A perennial in the family Polygonaceae (buckwheat family) that dies back to the ground in winter, it can often be found growing on old homestead sites, when the homestead itself is long gone. Grown for its tart stems, which can vary from all green to a deep red, its large leaves contain high amounts of oxalic acid (also found in much lower quantities in spinach) and anthrone glycosides, which can be toxic. Though you’d have to eat many pounds of the leaves in one sitting to actually poison yourself. My sheep love the leaves and have done damage to more than one fence to reach my plants.

It’s one of the very first “fruits” of spring, generally being ready to harvest in late April or early May. Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle, in which she documents her family’s attempt to eat an almost entirely local diet for a full year, talks about how welcome rhubarb was in desserts in the spring.

I have one rhubarb plant given to me by my mother-in-law off of her parent plant that never flowers. I mail ordered more plants to keep up with my jam making needs, and all 6 of that variety blooms like crazy in the spring (the bees love it). I’ve not been able to identify what it is that makes some plants bloom and other not, though I suspect its some type of hybridization.

The stems are best harvested in the spring. As the warm weather comes on, the stems tend to get hollow and pithy. While kids like to challenge each other to eat the stems raw, they can be VERY sour (individual plants my vary), not to mention stringy, so rhubarb is almost always served sweetened and cooked, though there is a new trend to explore rhubarb in more savory applications and cocktails. I’ve got a bottle of homemade rhubarb bitters in my liquor cabinet.

I was first introduced to rhubarb pie in Montana, at a relative’s house. And it was good. Not strawberry-rhubarb pie good, but good. But if I had strawberries around, that was always gonna be my default (hint on THAT pie – add more thickening than you think you need – neither fruit as much natural thickening power).

And then my husband and I went out to an anniversary dinner to the Patit Creek Restaurant in Dayton WA. This funny little diner, inside an old house, and decorated with everything from 80’s art to Hollywood headshots (seriously, you can’t describe the decor of this restaurant, other than mixed thrift store. I’m sure there were poker playing dogs on velvet somewhere), was known for its French inspired steak dinners. And that’s what we had. And it was delectable. But we ordered the Rhubarb Custard Pie for dessert, and it completely changed my views on stand alone rhubarb pie. This was an epically good pie.

Interior of Patit Creek restaurant, stolen from the interwebs.

We never ate there again. Between the distance (45 minutes away from Walla Walla) and the crazy decor, it just didn’t rise to the top of our “must do again” list. And a few years later the owners retired and the restaurant closed after 40 years. But I had followed them on facebook, and the owner was making an offer. Send a self addressed stamped envelope, and he would send you any recipe from their menu. I jumped at the chance to get that rhubarb custard pie recipe.

When I received the recipe, I was surprised. The ingredients were basically rhubarb, eggs and sugar. Come to find out, that’s pretty standard for rhubarb custard pie. Some call for cream or other dairy, but the base recipe is just these three ingredients. I was grateful for the recipe, as I never would have put it together myself. Their secret ingredient? Nutmeg.

I’ve since adapted the recipe to our own tastes (theirs was HUGE, and his crust recipe called for a pound of shortening/butter and 5 cups of flour). But those three basic ingredients, plus nutmeg, are always included. You can make our own crust, or in a pinch, just buy one ready made from the store – note that the frozen in an aluminum tin ones taste a lot better than the Pilsbury Refrigerated crust, which I have NEVER liked.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1 lb rhubarb, sliced crosswise into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces (I use a food processor slicing blade)
  • 3/4 to 1 cup sugar (based on how sour your rhubarb is)
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
  • Single or double crust pie dough

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 and place oven rack in lowest position.

Place bottom pie dough into 9″ pie plate.

Mix sugar, eggs, flour, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl. Add sliced rhubarb and mix. Pour filling into pie shell. If doing a double crust, wet bottom edge of crust and place top crust over filling, crimping edges to seal and cutting 1″ slits near center to release steam. But you can also choose to leave the pie open faced, or top with a bit of crumb/crisp (I use the crisp from this recipe, which I tend to have on hand in my freezer for just this purpose)

Bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, about 50 minutes. Cool at least an hour (or up to 4 to fully set) and serve with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

© 2020 Miles Away Farm, where we’re throwing our regular diet to the wind in the face of quarantine, and are enjoying ALL THE THINGS, with a good dose of sugar, wheat flour and butter. Because comfort food trumps waistline in times of stress.