hailstone rhubarb crumble, compote, syrup

Individual rhubarb crumble in ramekinWHEN LIFE DEALS YOU LEMONS—well, maybe not lemons, but battered, shredded rhubarb, thanks to hail—make rhubarb compote, crumble and syrup, perhaps with an eye to using less sugar than usually called for in the process. That was the attitude here one recent spring, and we did. My 2013 rhubarb story: before, after, and deliciously ready-to-eat.

rhubarb in bloomUsually at rhubarb time of year I forbid that even a single stalk be picked, because I cultivate lowly, old-fashioned garden rhubarb as a focal point in the garden (above), a favorite of Open Day tour visitors who often think it’s something rare and exotic since it’s in a prominent spot and a showoff.  I’m a lover of big-leaved plants (not the best combination with hail).

rhubarb after hailstormBut in 2013 my bold, beautiful and blooming rhubarb was savaged. Not just the leaves, but the stalks, too, were shredded to my surprise (above)—so my trusty helper Susan and I harvested what we could from the mess, and did a rhubarb experiment.  (It’s way too early at rhubarb time locally for there to be strawberries, so they didn’t figure into our cookoff.)

The aims:

  • to figure out what sweetener was tastiest—yet not too sweet. Typically recipes call for 1 or 1½ cups of white sugar for 6ish or 7 cups of cut-up raw rhubarb, equal to about 2 pounds of fruit, but that seems like too much;
  • to taste-test different spices in the mix (cardamon, cinnamon or ginger are often suggested, as is orange zest);
  • to make use of  any excess liquid that results from cooking the rhubarb, but in some batches makes for a too-swampy compote.

With three batches of 6 cups of one-inch rhubarb pieces, we tried these additions, all of which were sweet enough for our taste:

  • ½ cup brown sugar and ½ cup fresh orange juice, plus the zest of an orange;
  • ½ cup honey and ¼ cup water;
  • ½ cup honey and ¼ cup fresh orange juice.

Result: We liked the brown sugar-OJ blend best—and especially when it had ¼ teaspoon cinnamon added.

hailstone rhubarb compote

TART AND TASTY contrast as a sauce over Greek-style yogurt, granola, or ice cream—or as the filling to shortcake. I like it on its own, too, and froze individual portions in jelly jars for later use.


  • 6 cups washed, cut-up rhubarb, preferably not all thick green stalks (which can be stringy)
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • zest of one orange
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon


  • In a non-reactive, heavy pot, combine the fruit, sugar and juice.  Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for perhaps 5 minutes, still covered.
  • Add the zest and cinnamon; continue to simmer, uncovered, for 3-5 more minutes to thicken.
  • The mixture will further thicken as it cools—or don’t wait, and strain it off, yielding a delightful pink syrup that makes a great addition to seltzer with a generous slice of fresh orange, or even makes a rhubarb Bellini, in Prosecco, if it’s cocktail hour.

rhubarb syrup for drinkshow we made the crumble (and the bonus syrup)

YOU NEEDN’T precook the rhubarb, as we did in our compote experiments above, to make a crumble. Instead, simply toss the cut-up rhubarb with flour and sugar in a mixing bowl, then heap it in a baking dish that’s perhaps dotted with butter, top it with a streusel or oat topping, and bake. Perhaps like this.

But we found that it took a lot more sugar to make the rhubarb go all gooey and soft baked in an open pan like that, than it did to make the compote and use that as part of our crumble’s base layer. So…

  • Ingredients: One recipe for hailstone rhubarb compote (above), but cook only the first 5 minutes.
  • Drain off the liquid (this is your bonus rhubarb syrup for drinks) then return 3 Tbsp. to the mix to be baked.
  • Add ¾ cups cut-up raw rhubarb to the partly cooked rhubarb compote.
  • Spoon the cooked-and-raw fruit mix into a glass baking pan, such as a pie plate or 9-inch square Pyrex type, or into individual ramekins (note: the fruit mixture will cook down, so fill generously).
  • Sprinkle on the topping mix (recipe below).
  • Bake in a 375 degree F oven until the fruit is bubbly and the topping brown, about 50 minutes.

for the topping:

  • 1 stick of butter, cold and cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. flour (we used ½ cup spelt flour and
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour)
  • 1/4 cup rolled oats
  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon

Using a pastry blender, combine the butter with the flour and sugar. Mix in the oats and spice. Sprinkle onto the fruit mix.

The crumble freezes well, too, in individual portions.

  1. Glenda Berman says:

    The rhubarb recipe looks wonderful. I am particularly fond of rhubarb fool. Cook the rhubarb as above and then fold in slightly sweetened whipped cream – it is divine.

  2. Sally says:

    I LOVE your site and would really find it helpful if you could offer a gluten free version of your recipes. There is a growing number of people needing this. I can attempt just substituting GF flour for your flour, but sometimes it doesn’t always turn out well.

    It would be a big help.

    Hope your rhubarb and other plants all recover.

  3. The last two years we’ve been putting chicken manure on the rhubarb patch in winter – straight from the chicken coop, uncomposted – and the rhubarb plants are thriving.

  4. Stephen Andrew says:

    Sounds fabulous! I’m also a fan of rhubarb and lime. One year I had to make an improvised pie on Christmas eve (at 3am) after an unfortunate and messy drop from my below-counter oven. I used frozen rhubarb, cranberry, lime and orange juice, and minced candied ginger. It was sweet and sour and really good!
    Oh I’m so sorry about your battered garden. But I suppose next year will be richer with all this forced pruning.

  5. Connie Peters says:

    only had hail like that once , poor rhubarb ! love your ideas of less sugar! have 4 lg plants, so my boys will soon be bored with rhubarb recipes, but I could eat it every day :) this year mine has holes in the leaf… what kind of bug would like these thick bitter (I assume) leaves ??!

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Laurie — how crazy! They are voracious devils, aren’t they? They love raspberries, roses, ostrich fern and various other things here.

  6. Sandy H says:

    Yum! You might want to try sweet cicely chopped up with your rhubarb. This perennial herb has a sweet licorice sort of flavor and can reduce the need for sugar a bit (though possibly not any lower than you’ve already gotten it). You can chop leaves or stems. The seeds are edible too, but probably not ready when you need them.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sandy. Interesting — I don’t grow sweet cicely but now you have me curious.

      Ditto re: the lime flavor, Stephen. Hadn’t thought of that.

  7. Carole says:

    I love rhubarb and would love to make your recipe for compote and crumble. Is it possible for you to put a print feature on the recipe? I have a lot of arthritis and have a lot of trouble writing. Sorry about the hail hitting your rhubarb, but sounds like there was a great outcome.

  8. marcia says:

    I have a Rhubarb crisp (crumble) recipe that calls for the addition of Anise seed-maybe 1/4 to1/2 tsp depending on one”s taste for Anise. I also use it in pies now -great w/ the grated orange peel.
    One of the most striking garden sites I’ve seen was a long, long row of blossoming rhubarb growing the whole length of an old red barn!

  9. Sheryl says:

    What variety of rhubarb do you have?
    Also, my hollyhocks are covered with reddish-brown spots on both sides of the leaves. I’ve read it is caused by spores (?). What causes this disease and how do you treat it?
    Although I don’t comment often, I do enjoy seeing your pictures and reading your newsletter.

  10. Shirrley says:

    We must all be having god crops of rhubarb this year. We are up in zone 3 area and have the best year ever . I wanted to add that I thoroughly enjoyed both your books. My biggest satisfaction is realizing so many people love the garden and realize the many joys and even facing fears and tasks they never thought they would have to handle. I believe you have many kindred spirits who take year round pleasure from the land and nature. I , for one, am pleased you enjoy your second career, after all we benefitted from your successful years at Marha ,too! Hope you have time to salute the good times with a rhubarb Bellina or two!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Shirrley, for the kind words! Yes, a bumper crop — well, till the hail hammered it! :)

      Hi, Rebecca. What did we all do before “Greek yogurt” because a grocery-store staple in the U.S.?

  11. Rebecca says:

    The idea of sweet cicely, cardamom or anise as flavorings is very interesting. I have been adding chunks of fresh ginger root (along with orange zest) to my compote/syrup. Fish them out at the end of cooking.
    Rhubarb fool is heavenly, as Glenda said, but a swirling compote into no-fat Greek yogurt is a delicious version for those of us watching fat intake.

  12. diane ash says:

    As the only person on the planet that does not like the taste of honey, I use grade A medium or dark amber maple syrup to sweeten my rhubarb compote. Quite good.

  13. Tracy says:

    Oh, I felt for you when I viewed your hail video. (I couldn’t get over the two foot high splashes coming from your pond.) I’ve experienced egg-sized hail only once…and it was just awful. Some tree and shrub damage, but the perennials (and forget the annuals) were just creamed. Looked like someone had walked through the gardens and whipped a baseball bat back and forth. I’m sure you had worked your fingernails to the nubs weeding, mulching and prepping for the open garden tour day, and then had all that work compromised in a scant few minutes. Nature’s lesson, or as you would say, ‘parable’, of ‘humility’ is never far away. I chose to take that hail storm as a reminder that I am not in charge, despite my ‘garden-proud’ tendencies. We’re invited to enjoy nature, not command it, I think. At least that’s what I took away. But know that I, and many of your readers, really, really, REALLY felt for you! I know in a month or two, your gardens will be beautiful and lush again, different than the normal spring-into-summer trajectory, but beautiful nonetheless. This recipe is but one example.

  14. Beth says:

    Good thing the hail can’t touch rhubarb’s long tap root! Thanks for sharing the recipes, I like that you reduced the sugar. Just started some plants myself last year from seed. You have to love food that comes back each year with next to no effort!

  15. My hubby and I are quite fond of Spicy Rhubarb Margaritas. They are soooo yummy, sweet, tart, and spicy all at the same time and the rhubarb left over from making the syrup is delicious spread on grilled homemade bread or served over ice cream. Here’s the recipe…

    Spicy Rhubarb Margaritas
    Makes 4-6 margaritas

    Rhubarb Syrup:
    3 stalks rhubarb, roughly chopped
    1 1/2 cups water
    1 1/2 cups sugar

    12 fluid ounces tequila
    2 fluid ounces Cointreau
    8 fluid ounces fresh lime juice
    10 fluid ounces reserved rhubarb syrup
    1 fresh jalapeño, stems removed and roughly chopped
    Sparkling water

    Glass Rim:
    2 tablespoons sugar
    2 teaspoons Coarse salt

    Combine rhubarb, water and sugar in a med. saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until the sugar dissolves, the fruit softens, the liquid has thickened slightly and the hue is a pretty pink, 15 or so minutes. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Run the syrup through the strainer, giving the rhubarb a gentle press with the back of a spoon to extract more syrup. (The solid part is delicious on toast or over ice cream – save for a yummy treat later)

    In a pitcher, combine the tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and rhubarb syrup. Add the jalapeño and transfer the margarita mixture to the refrigerator. Check the mixture every 15-20 minutes and do a taste test. The spice level will increase over time. If you’re making this in advance, add the jalapeño just before serving.

    Mix together the salt and sugar on a small plate. Run a lime around the edge of the glasses to moisten; dip the rims in the salt and sugar mixture. Add a few ice cubes to each glass and divide the margarita mixture between the glasses. Top each margarita with a splash of sparkling water. Garnish with a few slices of jalapeño and/or rhubarb.

  16. Eileen says:

    I’m probably the world’s worst gardener, but I keep plugging along. I love rhubarb, but I’ve never let it flower. I always cut off the flower heads as soon as I see them forming. Am I doing the wrong thing? I usually pick rhubarb from Spring through Fall. I make simple stewed rhubarb and eat it with yogurt. When my raspberries come in, I make lots of raspberry-rhubarb jam. Yum, yum!

  17. Jess says:

    I definitely recommend pulling the seed heads as soon as possible for anyone using their patch for food production. Some plants won’t come back the next year after seeding out. Your patch is certainly beautiful. I love to see rhubarb growing in yards.

  18. To go with our morning yoghurt, my favorite additive to rhubarb compote is crystallized ginger, cut in narrow shreds and cooked with the rhubarb and sugar. I make it over and over in season, with the goal of providing a winter’s worth, packed in plastic pint pots and stored in the freezer. I add about a half-cup shredded crystallized ginger to each pound of rhubard cut into inch-long segments.

  19. Laura says:

    I just realized most comments from last year – but since rhubarb season comes every year no matters. I use the Cooks recipie for it – small amount of oil in a large saute pan, and put the sliced rhubarb in, after about 5 minutes, add 1/2 cup sugar and orange zest. No liquid that way, and super FAST. Who doesn’t love strawberry rhubard pie?

  20. Jill says:

    I love rhubarb. Last summer I used it in a different way and my dinner guests were very surprised. I used large stalks and cut them in 4 inch pieces. I put them in a plastic bag, added some olive oil and some Greek seasoning mix. Shook the bag until pieces were coated then grilled it until tender. I served it with grilled pork tenderloin and salad. I tried many different seasonings but we liked the Greek best.

  21. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I make a rhubarb sauce with cinnamon, corn starch and sugar for crepes (with cream cheese filling!)

    Freezes beautifully.

    Surf up “Creamy Rhubarb Crepes” for the time-tested recipe. It works perfectly for me every time for 10 crepes.

  22. Ruth Buchanan says:

    I bake cut up rhubarb in a non stick pan and sprinkle non sugar jello ( raspberry is favorite) and bake till soft.
    Delicious on plain yogurt!

  23. Deborah Thomas says:

    Love rhubarb compote and the one thing I always add is a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary that I take out at the end of cooking or I grind up some dried rosemary and use about a tablespoon. It compliments the rhubarb without overpowering it. Give it a try!
    Deborah from Ancramdale

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