Something old, something new: Two ways to enjoy rhubarb when it's at its best

  • Chopped fresh rhubarb ready for cooking or baking in a crumble.

    Chopped fresh rhubarb ready for cooking or baking in a crumble. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Posted5/26/2021 6:00 AM

I moved from the 'burbs to a historic 2-plus-acre farmstead last month. One of the first perennial plants to greet me when I arrived was a 15-foot-long rhubarb patch. I thought I didn't like rhubarb, though I can't actually remember trying it. Now that I was the steward of these plants that had been dug up from family gardens and moved here 20 years ago, I figured I needed to challenge my palate.

My insurance agent was doing a walkthrough on the property and marveled at the lush rhubarb (his bed had barely started to emerge from the soil). I gladly shared an armful of ruby and green-tinged stalks with him, and he gave me his family recipe for Rhubarb Crunch. It was handed down from his great-great-grandmother, Mabel Doyle, born in the late 19th century in Farmer City. My "new" home was built in the 1860s, so the idea of using an old recipe that had been handed down the generations appealed to me.

Upside down rhubarb cake, baked and ready for turning right side up for serving.
Upside down rhubarb cake, baked and ready for turning right side up for serving. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Because rhubarb has a tart flavor, it's typically sweetened with plenty of sugar in most dessert recipes, including Mabel's. I had a lot of rhubarb, so I also did an internet search and found something with less added sugar, a Strawberry-Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake from Eating Well. My college-aged daughter came home for a visit, and she agreed to make both to serve at lunch with extended family. She's more precise and patient than I am, so she takes on baking duties when she's home, and I stick to the more free-wheeling, forgiving cooking.

Upside down rhubarb cake.
Upside down rhubarb cake. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

The only alterations to the recipes we made were to add a bit of orange zest to the top of the finished cake and to serve both with crème fraiche instead of the more traditional vanilla ice cream. The creamy, sour note was a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the cake and crunch, as was the strong coffee we enjoyed with our rhubarb smorgasbord. Do pay heed to Mabel's hand-written note and serve the crunch warm. The aroma was so irresistible that a corner was eaten straight from the oven before I had a chance to snap a photo for this story.

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Stalks of freshly harvested rhubarb.
Stalks of freshly harvested rhubarb. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

If this were a beauty contest, the upside-down cake would win with the rhubarb cut into long slices instead of the usual cross-cut pieces. But the crunch was preferred by six of the seven tasters, including the kids (though there was more than mere tasting involved). Perhaps the extra sugar made the difference, but I think it's more that my family members are not big fans of cake generally. I was the only one who had a slight preference for the cake and only in a forced choice. Either recipe will lead to a scrumptious treat, and I like that the crunch used four cups of rhubarb vs. just one in the cake. (As mentioned, I have a LOT of rhubarb in the garden.)

You can find fresh rhubarb in many grocery stores now and for the next couple of weeks. It should also be available at farmers markets as those open up this week. Or, if you are lucky, you can get some from a neighbor with a rhubarb patch who is willing to share the harvest.

I am looking forward to trying rhubarb beyond dessert. Salsa, pork glaze, pink lemonade and a shrub (a mixer made with fruit, vinegar and sugar) are in the future lineup.


Rhubarb is preposterously easy to grow if you have space. Now that I am a convert, I will do what I can to keep my plants going as long as possible. Here's to another 20 years!

• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook "real" food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school's Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at

A beautiful slice of upside down rhubarb cake. Serve with vanilla ice cream or cream fraiche.
A beautiful slice of upside down rhubarb cake. Serve with vanilla ice cream or cream fraiche. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Mabel's Rhubarb Crunch

For the syrup:

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup water (save a little to mix with cornstarch)

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix cornstarch with a few teaspoons of the water then combine with remaining water and sugar. Heat over medium-high while stirring until clear. Remove from heat. Add vanilla.

For the crunch:

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup rolled oats

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup (1 stick) melted butter

4 cups rhubarb cut into 1-inch pieces

Blend all but the rhubarb into a crumbly mixture. Pat ½ of crunch into the bottom of a greased 8-x 8-inch pan. Add rhubarb. Pour syrup over rhubarb and top with remaining crunch. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until topping is bubbly and brown. The rhubarb should be fork-tender.

Best served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Note: To make in a 9-x13-inch pan, double the ingredients for the crunch and the rhubarb but only increase the syrup by one and a half.

Serves 8 to 10

Family recipe reprinted with permission from Don Sinnott

The aroma wafting off the freshly baked Rhubarb Crunch is so inticing, it didn't make it whole to the photo shoot.
The aroma wafting off the freshly baked Rhubarb Crunch is so inticing, it didn't make it whole to the photo shoot. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Strawberry-Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

1 cup sliced fresh rhubarb

¾ cup orange juice, preferably fresh-squeezed, divided

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

2½ cups sliced strawberries

3 large eggs

⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1½ cups white whole-wheat flour or all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously coat a 9-inch round cake pan with olive oil.

Combine rhubarb, ¼ cup orange juice and granulated sugar in a medium bowl and let stand, mixing occasionally, for 20 minutes. Add strawberries; stir to combine. Spread the fruit mixture in the prepared pan.

Whisk eggs, oil, brown sugar, orange zest, vanilla and the remaining ½ cup orange juice in a large bowl. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Do not overmix. Spoon the cake batter on top of the fruit mixture.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake layer comes out dry, 40 to 50 minutes.

Run a knife around the outside of the pan and shake it a bit to loosen the bottom. Invert the cake onto a serving plate and remove the pan. Let the cake cool to room temperature before serving, about 2 hours.

Serves 8 to 10

© Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Used with permission. EatingWell magazine and

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