It is rhubarb season! Wait, what? Unlike most people in Minnesota and the Midwest, I did not grow up with this beautiful pink and green vegetable. Buenos Aires is much too warm for rhubarb to grow there and if you grew up in South America like me, you probably never saw this plant featuring fleshy, edible, pink-colored stalks. The first time I heard of rhubarb was through a friend who assured me that this celery-looking plant was used in desserts and tasted heavenly. To me it sounded like a vegetable from another planet. I was inclined to believe her, but when I saw the vegetable in the store, my exact thought was: “there is no way that can be transformed into a dessert.” So, for years, I lived life without rhubarb and developed a huge avoidance of anything that might contain this strange vegetable. Sure it was pretty, but pretty can kill you too!
This lasted 17 years, up until last summer, when I happened to try a strawberry rhubarb pie at a summer gathering and absolutely loved it. After trying that pie, I grew encouraged to try this strange, mysterious plant. Intrigued, I asked my Minnesotan friends “what does rhubarb taste like,” and they had a very hard time describing it to me, which only served to deepen the mystery. They said things like “slightly sweet and tart,” or “pairs well with strawberry,” or “it’s like sour candy.” After reading about it, I learned Rhubarb only grows in climates where the ground freezes in the winter, perfect for Minnesota! It is a hardy vegetable and a perennial; it grows back year after year. Rhubarb is one of the earliest spring edibles that you find after the winter. Seeing it at the grocery store always brings a smile to my face because it’s proof that spring is here. The leaves of the rhubarb are actually inedible, so do not try to make anything with them! While rhubarb is a vegetable, the stalks are generally used as if they were a fruit. The crimson stalks are cut into pieces, sprinkled with sugar, and either stewed or roasted until softened, so they can be used in pies, tarts, and crumbles. In olden times, a soft, tender stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar was considered an affordable and slightly healthy treat for children in places like Scandinavia, and in Finland, rhubarb is used to make Finnish rhubarb mead, sima. Because rhubarb is so tart and sour, it usually needs a significant amount of sugar or another ingredient that is very sweet in order to make it palatable. My hunch is that if you like sour, acidic fruits like tart cherries, raspberries, or lemons, you will probably enjoy the taste of rhubarb.
This year, I finally dared to purchase rhubarb and—gasp!—make a dessert with it. I figured that if I don’t like rhubarb prepared in a cheesecake, most likely I won’t like it in any other preparation. I found an amazing rhubarb cheesecake recipe in Erin McDowell’s book The Fearless Baker, which is a gem of a book if you ask me, with lots of wonderful recipes and tips for baking like a professional. If you’re ever in need of a baking book, I highly recommend it. You should get over to the link and get your own copy! Anyway, Erin McDowell’s rhubarb cheesecake was just the ticket, and it had the advantage of being a beautifully romantic blush pink color. With that in mind, I tried her recipe, which is really brilliant. It is a baked cheesecake, firm and slightly sweet. The cheesecake filling is made by combining a cooked and cooled sweet rhubarb puree with the cream cheese, eggs, and additional sugar, and then baked in a bain de marie in the oven for roughly an hour. The result is a deliciously subtle, slightly sweet, creamy cheesecake that is the perfect vehicle to soften the sourness and acidity of the rhubarb while still allowing the flavor to shine. For décor, I followed Erin’s advice and garnished the cheesecake with thin peels cut along the stalks of the rhubarb and steeped in ice water, which allows the peels to curl up in a very pretty way. I hope you will give rhubarb a chance if you haven’t yet, and more than that, I hope you will try Erin’s recipe.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Chill time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Cook time: 60-75 minutes
Servings: makes a 9” cheesecake, about 8 servings
For the Crust
- 2 cups oat cookie crumbs
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
For the Cheesecake
- 3 cups rhubarb
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 32 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 ½ cups white sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 5 large eggs
For the Garnish (optional)
- 4-6 stalks rhubarb, trimmed
- Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the middle.
- Make the crust: In a medium bowl, mix the cookie crumbs and butter together to combine. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
- Transfer the pan to the oven and bake the crust until lightly golden, about 10 to 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature. When cooled, place the springform pan inside a large roasting pan, and then make the cheesecake. Reduce the oven heat to 325°F.
- Make the filling: Heat a large kettle of water to barely simmering (you can use a pot but it will be a lot easier to pour from a kettle.)
- In a medium saucepan, combine the rhubarb and granulated sugar, tossing to mix. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is very tender, 7 to 9 minutes. Let cool slightly, then puree with an immersion blender, or transfer to a regular blender and puree until very smooth. You should end up with 1 ½ cups puree. Let cool to room temperature. (Stir in the vanilla extract, if using.)
- Transfer the cooled rhubarb puree to a food processor, add the cream cheese, vanilla sugar, and eggs, and process the mixture until very smooth, 1-2 minutes, pausing occasionally to scrape down the bowl.
- Bake the cheesecake: Pour the custard into the cooled crust. Carefully pour enough hot water from the kettle into the roasting pan to come about halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Transfer the roasting pan to the oven and bake the cheesecake until the edges are set but the center still jiggles slightly when you shake the pan, 60-75 minutes.
- Leave the cheesecake in the water bath to cool for 30 minutes, then transfer the springform pan to the refrigerator and chill thoroughly, at least 2 hours.
- Meanwhile, make the garnish, if you like: Fill a medium bowl with ice water. Use a sharp peeler to peel long strips from the stalks of rhubarb and transfer them to the ice water—this will help the strips curl up. After about 1 minute in the ice water, drain well on several layers of paper towels.
- Remove the outer ring of the springform pan and transfer the cheesecake to a platter or cake stand. Just before serving, arrange the rhubarb curls on top of the cheesecake, if desired. Serve the cheesecake chilled.
Recipe by Erin Jeanne McDowell. Used with permission.
© 2020 Prairie and Pampa