Pretty in Pink: An Icebox Pie to Celebrate the Midwest’s Local Rhubarb
Amy Thielen’s rhubarb custard pie is a retro, rosy-pink ode to spring produce.
makes one 9-inch pie
4 hours 30 minutes
“So many people in this area grow rhubarb in their yards that the local grocery stores don’t even bother to sell it in the spring,” writes Amy Thielen in The New Midwestern Table, our current Saveur Cookbook Club pick.
The casually written line has this quarantined Manhattanite daydreaming of a backyard flooded with pink stalks, like plastic flamingos in Florida. Not least because I had to go to four different grocery stores in New York City to finally find rhubarb, and in asking various employees if they had it, learned that many people up here don’t even know what it is.
“Rhu-barb?” I was met with blank faces.
It doesn’t help that the seasonal window for these magenta-red petioles lasts just a few months, usually from April to June (unless, of course, you’re harvesting 25 pounds of them from your yard). But perhaps that’s exactly what makes Thielen’s pink rhubarb-lime icebox pie so appealing: It’s a celebration of the end of winter, and of the bounty of the warmer months.
“This recipe came to me one spring,” she tells me in an email. Inspired by key lime pie, she wondered what would happen if she used tart-pink rhubarb in addition to citrus. I’m grateful she did, because what you end up with is a custard that tastes more complex—fruitier, almost floral and apple-like—than if it were made with just lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks (the usual). The filling, bolstered by a 10-minute rhubarb compote, is still pleasurably sour—especially as a contrast against the sweet, cooling pompadour of whipped cream on top and the buttery shortbread crust beneath. But stacked against a regular key lime pie? This spring version is, for me, the clear winner.
It’s prettier, too. Store-bought is more than fine, in this case: Hothouse rhubarb from the market tends to be vibrantly red, which dyes the custard base a glorious fuschia. Not that you should worry if you can only pluck the stalks from your luscious, Edenic garden in the Midwest; the locally grown stuff, usually more green with just a blush of pink (or none at all), will still taste wonderful. But if you’re greedy for pink, Thielen suggests in her headnote a way to give your filling a louder hue: “add a drop of red food coloring...although I happen to love the natural blushing mauve color.” (Alternatively, as Test Kitchen director Kat Craddock suggests, you could even add a small chunk of fresh beetroot during the stewing process, then take it out before processing.) I was tempted to do so—as pink is my favorite color—but decided to leave my filling, as well. Nature, in this case, needs no embellishments; it’s so beautiful already.
“I feel like this pie has a lot of synesthesia for me,” Thielen adds. “It reminds me of high school in the late ‘80s, the Pretty in Pink era. Denim miniskirts, white keds, mauve plastic bead necklaces. My hair—everyone’s hair—was a little too big, like the whipped cream, bangs crested into a frozen wave.”
Who wouldn’t want to eat that?
For the shortbread crust
- Nonstick spray or canola oil, for greasing
- 1½ cups finely ground shortbread crumbs (from store bought or homemade shortbread)
- 5 Tbsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. ground ginger
- 3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
For the filling and topping
- 2½ cups (10 ounces) diced rhubarb
- ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar, divided
- ⅓ cup fresh lime juice (from about 4 limes)
- One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1½ cups heavy cream
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract