It’s the season to celebrate educational milestones; to pop a cork for the learners among us. Which may be why I find myself obsessing over the things I never seem to learn, the life lessons that play on continuous loop, tripping me up again and again.
For example: Many years ago, I brought a rhubarb dessert to a memorial service for a man who, it turned out, had hated rhubarb all his life. I remained ignorant of his aversion through the prayers, hymns and potluck feast; through the lingering of the solemn guests and their eventual goodbyes. Finally, in the shadowy kitchen, his widow told me with a wistful laugh that her dead husband had loathed rhubarb so intensely that, every spring, he would go on a long, vituperative rant against the astringent stalks. I was mortified.
I was also, at that point, still in possession of nine-tenths of the dessert, which had barely been touched.
And yet, I am at this very moment planning to bring a rhubarb dessert to a large gathering of people. In this case, the get-together is a post-graduation party for our middle son, and the dessert is a ginger-snap-crusted cheesecake with caramelized rhubarb on top. Moreover, I know that at least one of the honorees — that son — doesn’t loathe rhubarb.
But as for the dozens of other people who will be at the party, I must confess that I am engaging in rampant projection: I like rhubarb, so surely they will, too. Freud (he was very smart!) first labeled my syndrome, which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, goes something like this: “In projection, what is internal is seen as external. People cannot get inside the minds of others; to understand someone else’s mental life, one must project one’s own experience.”
Exactly what I’m doing with rhubarb! I feel much sharper now that I’ve inserted Freud into my story.
I also take comfort in the fact that, in the 30-odd years since that memorial service, America’s collective palates have grown both more adventuresome and more tolerant of unexpected flavors.
Besides, I am just so excited about this dish. The idea for it crept into my mind shortly after I acquired my first rhubarb stalks of 2023. As they rested quietly in the fridge, my brain got noisy wondering why there aren’t more good things to make with rhubarb, and then trying to come up with one. When I remembered that rhubarb goes well with ginger, I found myself quoting the brilliant mathematician Archimedes: Eureka!
Of course, every genius knows that failures and mistakes are the lifeblood of true brilliance. The fact that this notion has been wrongly attributed to such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt makes it no less true. Failure may not look good on a report card or transcript, but it’s the key to an engaging, incandescent life.
In the end, some good even came of my bygone gaffe. Every spring, when rhubarb appears in backyard gardens and at farmers’ markets, I think of that couple: the gruff, good-hearted husband and the sweet, forbearing wife. Sometimes, I even send her a card: Happy Rhubarb Season, dear Joan.
And Happy Commencement to us all —now and every day.
Caramelized Rhubarb Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust
Note: Make this at least half a day before serving, to allow the cheesecake to chill. The recipe is based on the wonderful “Three Cities of Spain Classic Cheesecake” in The Gourmet Cookbook.
One 9- or 9½ -inch springform pan
For the crust
1½ cups (about 6 ounces) finely ground gingersnaps
5 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ cup sugar
Butter the bottom and sides of the pan. In a medium bowl, stir together all the ingredients. Press onto the bottom and at least one inch up the sides of the pan. Set aside until ready to fill.
For the cheesecake
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
4 large eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
½ teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
16 ounces sour cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese with an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. With the mixer running at low speed, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, and scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl frequently. Add 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and the ginger and mix well.
Set the crust in the springform pan on a baking sheet to catch drips (some of the butter will likely melt and ooze out). Pour the cream cheese mixture into the crust. Bake until the cake is set at the edges but the very center is still a little wobbly, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, leaving the oven on.
Mix the sour cream with the remaining tablespoon of sugar and teaspoon of vanilla. Scrape the sour cream mixture onto the cake, and spread gently and evenly over the surface. Return to the oven and bake 15 minutes more.
Run a thin knife around the edges of the cake to loosen, then cool the cheesecake in the pan. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for 6 hours or overnight.
For the topping
8 ounces fresh or frozen strawberries, plus more for serving
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
2 pounds rhubarb stalks, cut into ¾- to 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Whirr the strawberries in a blender to create a smooth puree. In a medium saucepan, heat the sugar and water over medium until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat and cook without stirring until the sugar turns a deep gold; you can swirl the pan from time to time to ensure even caramelization.
Remove from heat and add the cut rhubarb (carefully, as the sugar may spatter). Don’t stir, or the sugar will stick to the spoon! Cover the pan tightly and simmer over low heat until the rhubarb is just beginning to soften, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the rhubarb and transfer to a strainer set over a bowl. Continue cooking the caramel and rhubarb juices, uncovered, over medium-low, adding to the pan any juices that collect in the bowl, until the mixture is thick and syrupy, about 5 minutes. Add the strawberry puree and rhubarb pieces and transfer to the refrigerator to chill.
Just before serving, top the cheesecake with the caramelized rhubarb puree.
Way to go, Celia! Love your spunk and your recipe!