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Rhubarb is a hunter/gatherer/ cook and sweet tooth's delight

After four pies in the testing stages, this has been deemed "near to pink perfection." (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

I wonder if when spring cravings hit, they're not due to a need for certain foods but instead to a craving for the hunting and gathering of them. For me, after a long winter, my hands itch to pick. Thank god for rhubarb, then, seemingly indestructible, downright everlasting, and growing in clumps just down my hill.

Most of all, though, I love rhubarb pie.

It was while sitting on the rug in front of the TV, feebly putting myself through some yoga moves, that I dreamed up this rhubarb custard pie. (Want to bet how many desserts have been invented in front of the TV? Surely lots. I imagine the chiffon pie was dreamt up by a housecoated lady on one of those old, galloping stationary bikes, handles pumping, as she calculated calories, and the loft of egg white foam.)

Now when it comes to pie I am usually a Midwestern classicist, an advocate of the leaf-lard crust and firmly of a two-crust mind. At age 12 my grandma made a point of teaching me how to make a piecrust, and I've looked forward to the challenge ever since. As long as I keep this short of mastery, I will continue to need to make them.

But something about this early summer makes me crave the high summer icy treats early. I wanted icebox pie: a cracker-crust, a creamy filling, a towering toupee of whipped cream.

It was in the middle of a particularly half-hearted stretch - watching the Food Channel, of course - that the rhubarb custard idea struck. On the screen was this yellow pie, its golden filling topped with a mountain of whipped cream ("schlag" in German, which I've always thought sounds more decadent and deliciously bad-for-you . . . ), and I thought, what would that be like if rhubarb drove the tartness instead of lemon, or key lime, the paragon of this genre?

Four pies later, I can tell you: it is pretty near to pink perfection.

The first time I made the pie with a gingersnap/graham cracker crust (good, but a bit heavy), the second with butter cookies (Liebnitz butter wafers, pretty good), and the third with shortbread cookies (fabulous). I suppose I could have just made a quick shortbread dough and pressed it into the pan, but somehow it seemed easier to grind up some storebought shortbread cookies for a pat-in-the-pan crust.

For the filling, I began by substituting cooked, pureed rhubarb for the lime juice in a key lime pie recipe, and then tinkered with it from there. By the last pie I found what I'd been looking for: a smooth and dense cream filling, as tart as key lime but fruitier, with the pink blushing color of a wild rose.

In an attempt to quicken the setting, so I could get to the taste-testing, I actually set the final baked pie on a trivet on my refrigerator shelf, breaking my own rule about putting warm things in my refrigerator. Some pies require desperate measures.

Rhubarb Lime Icebox Pie

The redder the rhubarb, the pinker the pie. If you like, you can add a drop of red food coloring to a filling made with green rhubarb.

1 and a fourth cup finely ground shortbread crumbs (I used plain Sandies cookies)

One-fourth cup sugar + 7 and one-half Tablespoons sugar, divided

One-half teaspoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 and one-half cups diced rhubarb (One-half inch pieces)

One-fourth cup lime juice

1 can condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1 and three-fourths cups heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pulverize the cookies or graham crackers to fine crumbs. (You can use a food processor or a heavy plastic bag and a rolling pin.) Add the powdered ginger, one-fourth cup sugar and melted butter and mix with a fork to combine.

Press the crumb mixture into a 9-inch pie plate, making sure to drag the crust all the way up the sides and pinch a little lip at the top.

Bake the crust for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, or until fragrant and light brown. Reduce the oven temperature to 325.

Meanwhile, combine the chopped rhubarb, 6 tablespoons sugar and lime juice in a saucepan, cover tightly, and bring to a simmer. Cook 10 minutes, covered, until the rhubarb is soft. Let cool a few minutes, then mash with a potato masher until smooth or, if you want a smoother pie, pulse the rhubarb a few minutes in a food processor. Add the can of condensed milk and whisk or pulse to combine, and add the egg yolks. Whisk or process until smooth.

Pour the filling into the baked pie shell and bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes, or until it begins to set but is still a bit jiggly in the center.

Cool to room temperature, and then cool in the refrigerator until completely cold, at least 3 hours.

Just before serving, whip the cream with the remaining 1 and one-half Tablespoons sugar until almost stiff. Top the pie with the cream. Keep any remaining pie refrigerated.