The Tragic Optimist

The rhubarb bars they didn’t want you to try*

My farmer’s market has two bake-offs each summer – rhubarb in June and apple in September.  On bake-off day, you bring in 60 servings of your creation to the market, and then people can pay $5 to try one of each entry and vote for their favorite.  Last year I entered the apple one and had a ton of fun trying to figure out a recipe and baking different versions.  Didn’t win, but enjoyed it so much I promised myself I’d try again this year.

I started early trying to figure out what to do with rhubarb.  I originally thought I wanted to do a rhubarb shortcake, but I realized early on that it wouldn’t hold up well to sitting out for a couple of hours at a farmer’s market (plus, it turns out I wouldn’t have been able to serve it with whipped cream).  So I started playing around with a rhubarb cheese cake bar.  I baked a lot of cheese cake bars and experimented with the proportions and crust and other things and fed many friends, neighbors and co-workers the results.  And I finally got to something I really liked: a creamy cheese cake bar with a whole lot of tart rhubarb.  Plus, it’s kind of pretty:


Then, the day before the farmer’s market (thankfully before I’d started baking), I got the call.  The call saying that my entry wouldn’t be allowed.  It’s not shelf-stable, which means the health department won’t let them serve it.  Which, now that I think about it, I feel super silly about not realizing.  It was in the rules, but I read it as saying that you shouldn’t enter something that you would want to stay refrigerated – I had even tested to make sure they would hold up  after a few hours un-refrigerated and they were fine.  I do totally get why the rule is in place, though, and it’s totally my fault for not paying closer attention to the rules.  Still, I’m a little bummed that I didn’t get to enter.

But I can still share the recipe here.   It’s a little bit involved, but wasn’t actually too hard, especially if you do the rhubarb part ahead of time.  Oh, and one of my problems was that I couldn’t come up with a good name for these, but now that they were disqualified, I present…

Illegal Rhubarb Bars

(* The title of this post and the name for the bars should be seen as poking fun at myself and mocking the silly overly-sensationalistic titles of click-bait articles — other options included: “This woman tried to enter a bake-off, you’ll never guess what happened next” or “Check out this recipe, at step 4 you’ll start smiling, by step 8, you’ll be amazed” or “What secret ingredient got these rhubarb bars banned from the farmer’s market?“.  I hold absolutely no hard feelings towards our farmer’s market, which I love.)

Makes 1 9×13 pan, which you can cut into 32 bars (or even more, if you want to cut them super small like I did)


Rhubarb filling

The rhubarb I got is pretty gorgeous - the redder it is, the prettier the results.

The rhubarb I got from the farmer’s market was gorgeous – the deeper the color, the prettier the final bars.

  • 2 pounds of rhubarb, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces.  Make sure you removed all leaves.
  • 1/3 cup of honey
  • dash of salt
  • 1 Tbsp corn starch
  • 1 Tbsp cold water


  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup white flour

** I imagine that you could probably make the cheese cake bars gluten-free if you made the crust with either 1/2 cup butter and 1 1/2 cups of crumbs of your favorite gluten-free shortbread cookie, or possibly even replacing the flour with ground nuts like almonds or pecans


  • 16 oz (2 packages) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla or seeds from half of a vanilla bean
  • 1 Tbsp corn starch


The rhubarb – you can make this way ahead of time.

  1. Heat the oven to 400° F.
  2. Toss the rhubarb pieces, honey, and salt into a 9×13 baking dish.  Let it sit for 30 minutes and then stir.
  3. Cover the dish loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender.  Stir one time half way through.
  4. Place a colander over a medium bowl and pour the rhubarb and juice into the colander.  Let the juice drain for about 10 – 20 minutes.  Set the baked rhubarb to the side, it will probably have totally fallen apart and be kind of a thick rhubarb paste, that’s totally fine.
  5. Mix the corn starch and cold water in a small bowl.
  6. Pour the juice into a pan and put it on the stove over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
  7. Once the juice is boiling, take it off the heat and whisk in the corn starch and water.
  8. Put the juice back on the stove and cook for another minute while whisking.
  9. Ok, now here’s the kind of weird part:  Take about 4 Tbsp of the juice that you just made and mix it in with the rhubarb paste.  Now take about 2 Tbsp of the paste and mix it in to the juice.  So you’ll have two things: a thickened juice with some pieces of rhubarb, and a thick paste of rhubarb (with a little bit of juice mixed back in).

    Rhubarb two ways: The rhubarb paste in front, the thickened juice in back (this picture is from a double batch).

    Rhubarb two ways: The rhubarb paste in front, the thickened juice in back (this picture is from a double batch).

  10. If you made this a day or two ahead of time, store in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.

For the crust

  1. Heat the oven to 350° F.  Line a 9×13 pan with parchment paper (aluminum foil would probably also work, I tried just greasing the pan with cooking spray, and it worked but it was hard getting the bars out.
  2. Mix the butter, sugar, and flours until combined.  It won’t hold together like dough, it’ll be more like crumbs.
  3. Press the mixture onto the bottom of the pan.  Maybe 1/8 – 1/4 of an inch thick.  You will have some left over mixture.

    Hazel helped with this part.

    Hazel helped with this part.

  4. Bake for 10 minutes.  It shouldn’t really change color.
  5. Remove from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes.

For the cheesecake

  1.  Turn the oven down to 325° F.
  2. Mix the cream cheese and sugar together until smooth.  I had to do a lot of scraping the bowl with a spatula to get it all mixed together.
  3. Add the eggs one at a time and mix together.
  4. Add the cream.
  5. Take 1/4 cup of the cheese cake batter and mix it together with the thickened rhubarb juice and set aside.

    Pretty rhubarb cheesecake batter

    Pretty rhubarb cheesecake batter

  6. Add the cornstarch and vanilla to the rest of the (non-rhubarb) cheesecake batter and stir.

Assembling the bars

  1. Spread the rhubarb paste (there has to be a better name for this) evenly over the top of the crust.
  2. Pour the vanilla cheese cake batter over the rhubarb and use a spatula to spread it evenly.
  3. Carefully pour the rhubarb cheese cake batter in two long lines down the middle of the pan.  Use a knife or spoon to artfully swirl the two batters so they look pretty.  (I am not good at this).



  4. Bake for 45-55 minutes.  The top should be set and if you have an instant read thermometer, the batter in the middle of the pan should be 180° F.
  5. Remove and let the pan cool for 30 minutes.
  6. Place the pan in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, overnight is even better.  (You have to do this, or else you’ll have to eat these with a spoon.  Which wouldn’t actually be such a bad thing.)
  7. Cut into squares and serve (but not at the farmer’s market).
  8. Since I don’t need a full pan sitting in my refrigerator, I cut mine tiny and then put them on a tray and froze them.  They’re pretty good frozen, too.

1 Comment

  1. Lisa

    I just got some lovely rhubarb from my local co-op and I will be making these for our next neighborhood potluck! Thank you for sharing the recipe 🙂

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