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.
“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?
Rhubarb-Lime Icebox Pie Recipe
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
- Make the shortbread crust: Preheat the oven (with one of its racks positioned in the center) to 350°F. Spray a 9-inch pie plate with nonstick spray (or rub it with a little canola oil) and set it aside.
- To a large bowl, add the shortbread crumbs, sugar, ginger, and melted butter and mix with a fork to combine. Pour the crumb mixture into the prepared pie plate and press it into an even layer along the bottom and all the way up the sides, pinching slightly to form a little lip above the rim of the pie plate. Transfer to the oven and bake until the crust is fragrant and light brown, 8–10 minutes.
- Remove the crust from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.
- Make the filling: To a medium pot, add the rhubarb, ½ cup of the remaining sugar, and the lime juice and stir well to combine. Set over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is beginning to break down, 10–12 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly, then blend the stewed rhubarb mixture with an immersion blender (or, alternatively, transfer it to a food processor or blender and process) until smooth. Add the condensed milk, then continue blending to combine. Finally, add the egg yolks, and continue blending until smooth.
- Pour the filling into the reserved pie shell, place the pie on a large baking sheet, transfer to the oven, and bake until the custard is completely set and no longer jiggling at the center, 25–30 minutes. Set the pie aside to cool to room temperature, then transfer to the fridge and chill completely, at least 3 hours or up to 2 days. (If refrigerating for longer than a few hours, cover the surface of the pie loosely with plastic wrap.)
- Finish the pie: To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip (or to a large bowl, using a balloon whisk), add the cream, the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and the vanilla and whip until lofty and just beginning to form stiff peaks. Retrieve and uncover the chilled pie and scoop and spread the whipped cream over the top in an even layer. Cut into wedges and serve. Keep any leftover pie loosely covered in the fridge.