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There should be more custard in the world. If pudding is a steadfast matriarch and mousse is a worldly, fashionable sister, custard is a gentle, soft-spoken, doting aunt you go to when you need a hug or just a good companion. Custard is an old-timey dessert, associated in my mind with my great-grandmother and Thanksgiving dinner, and in both of those cases I’m thinking of custard pie. I’m not sure I had ever had a custard cup, but after my Mom mentioned in passing a rhubarb custard pie she remembered having years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about custard, and beyond that, rhubarb custard. As soon as I got some fresh rhubarb, I decided to make some.

How funny that a search for a rhubarb custard recipe turned up almost nothing other than pies. But I did not want a pie. I finally decided to take the baked custard recipe from The Joy of Cooking and adapt it to include rhubarb. I figured out from all the various pie recipes how I could treat the rhubarb and incorporate it into the dish. I suppose custard is not made as often these days because it can be finicky, and folks want easy, now, no fuss. It’s really not difficult provided you follow a few steps: don’t introduce the custard mixture to hot rhubarb, unless you want scrambled eggs, and don’t skip the water bath, as it helps cook the custard at an even temperature, an important factor for eggs. There. If you can do those things, you’ll be rewarded with a creamy, lightly-sweetened, slightly-spiced, satisfyingly tart, comforting ramekin of goodness. And who doesn’t want that? Custard is usually thought of as a dessert, but I confess– I ate one of these for breakfast on Sunday, and I’ll do it again.

If the idea of rhubarb custard pie intrigues you, there are several great-looking recipes that come up with a simple Google search. I imagine I will try my hand at that someday. For now, I am happy with these custards and their basic ingredient list. It’s nice to have another gluten-free option, if you’re looking for one, and I am eager to slice a few strawberries into the ramekins and see how wonderful that may be. As rhubarb season ramps up (or approaches, if you’re reading from a still-snowy area), set a few stalks aside and give this recipe a try.

rhubarb custard

Rhubarb Custard (makes 5 servings)

  • 3 c. diced rhubarb
  • 1/2 c. sugar, divided
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the rhubarb with 1/4 c. sugar and salt and spread out in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Cook for 10 mins. Remove from the oven and cool for 15-20 mins. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 300 degrees.

If you have a 4 c. Pyrex (or similar) measuring cup with a pour spout, use that here; if not use a medium mixing bowl. Add the remaining 1/4 c. sugar to the milk and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, and then the nutmeg and vanilla. Set aside the bowl and wait to see if bits of egg float to the top; if they do, keep whisking until you have a uniform mixture. You can use a blender or mixer, but it only takes a minute or two to get the custard to the consistency you need. Set aside.

setting up the baking dish for rhubarb custard

While the oven and rhubarb cool, arrange your water bath. I used a rectangular baking dish that accommodated my 5 ramekins (well, 4 ramekins and a tea cup, but who’s counting?), allowing for space all around each one. Use a wire rack, canning rings or bamboo skewers to make a base on which the ramekins can sit and have warm water circle beneath them. Into each ramekin (or use custard cups, or oven-safe tea cups), place a few tablespoons of the rhubarb mixture; as long as it is equally distributed, there’s no need to measure. Divide any juice from the baking dish among the ramekins, if you like; though the custard won’t set as firmly, the extra flavor is very nice.

before adding water to the dish, but ready for the oven

If your custard mixture is in a vessel with a pouring spout, your next task will be much easier. (In the absence of a pour, use a ladle.) When your rhubarb has cooled down (warm to the touch, not hot, so the eggs in the custard don’t scramble), divide the custard between your five ramekins, making sure 1/4″ of space is left at the top of each one. The rhubarb will float to the top, and that’s okay. Carefully transfer the dish full of ramekins to the oven rack, which should be in the center of the oven, and pour lukewarm water into the dish until it reaches halfway up all of the ramekins. Bake for one hour at 300 degrees. After an hour, use a sharp knife to test for doneness: if inserted near the edge of a custard, it should come out clean. Remove each ramekin from the water bath and cool the custards for 30 mins. at room temperature, then chill completely in the refrigerator. Serve as-is or with a dollop of whipped cream.