A version of this post first appeared on LuluandPhoebe's Open Salon blog.
After the wedding, when I was officially the 17-year-old bride and newly installed daughter-in-law, I learned the holy grail of in-law 101.
We were being driven by my father-in-law to the bus for our destination honeymoon: Rochester, N.Y. by Greyhound. Stopped at a red light, he turned to face us in the backseat of the old Volvo. In his most serious professor voice, he warned us to never forget my mother-in-law’s birthday and that he loves lemon pie. Long after the light turned green he continued to stare until we mutely nodded.
Little did I know that day, but retaining that in-law-101-trivia would land me in the favorites column for decades to come.
But at the moment, since I was a little bit scared of him, I thought it prudent to memorize the information. And the only way I could do that over the next 30 minutes, without anything to write with, was to make up rhymes in my head that went with birthday and lemons. Not an easy task at all, and certainly not something you should be thinking about on the way to your honeymoon, even if it is Rochester by Greyhound. When we got our tickets for the bus I asked for a pen and wrote it on my hand. At 17, that was my version of a daytimer.
Our little tiny honeymoon was uneventful and not one lemon made an appearance. We took the bus back to our hometown and no mention was ever made of that brief conversation. But I am happy to report that over the next few decades we have not missed one mother-in-law birthday. The lemon pie is a different story.
I had married into a family of lemon lovers. They apply lemon to anything that seems sensible to them. To me, it seems beyond reason that one would put lemon in, let’s say, vanilla frosting, but they do.
Fortunately, their fixation is almost always limited to lemons that are visibly baked in something. I consider that fair warning. But more times than I can count, there's been some mystery ingredient in dinner that ends up being produced from a lemon. It could be lemon peel in spaghetti sauce (um, wrong), or a splash of lemon in mayonnaise (not bad) or lemon slices under the bottom layer of chicken pot pie (not all that good) or my favorite, lemon wedges baked inside an apple (a very bad surprise). Thankfully, the lemon desserts are much more appealing, though relatively scarce.
My father-in-law loves lemon pie more than anything. My mother-in-law rarely makes lemon pie. But almost daily, he will ask if she made lemon pie for dessert. Frankly, if anyone asked me that on a regular basis I would probably learn how to put a bunch of lemons in a crust and hand it to them with a knife and fork. But that would just be me. My mother in law is much more kind.
She grew up in California farm country and they had lemon trees. I am guessing that the lemon harvest was generously supplying her family with bushels of the fruit annually. Apparently this lemon pie thing is genetic. Every member of the family seems to find more uses for lemon than is reasonable. And the son thinks lemon pie is just as heavenly as chocolate pie. And I still married him.
When Meyer lemons debuted at the market I actually began to pay attention. Somehow those little Meyer gems, sweeter than their tart cousins, made lemon creations worthy. It took a little bit of work, but there a few lemon desserts that make the effort worthwhile as a change from the chocolate moments. I cannot believe I said that aloud.
When they come to visit, I will sometimes make my father-in-law lemon pie-like things. And once in a while because it might be Meyer Lemon season at the market, I will indulge in a lemon tart.
The best lemon tart filling is adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking Book. The crust is made with Fake Aunt Hope's rugelach dough. Something about the combination of cream cheese/butter dough with a lemon filling made with more butter not only sounds perfect, it is sublime. This is not the dessert to eat if you are thinking lemon light.
Gluten Free Meyer Lemon Tart
Tart Shell (Fake Aunt Hope's Rugelach Dough)
2 cups gluten free flour (or regular flour)
pinch of xanthan & guar gum (leave out if using regular flour)
8 oz. cream cheese
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- Mix the flour and xanthan gum in the food processor. Add chunks of the chilled butter and cream cheese and pulse just until it comes together. Turn out on a board and knead once or twice to fully incorporate ingredients and cut in half. Place each in a wrapped parchment paper package and refrigerate for at least one hour. Roll into a circle slightly larger than your tart pan. Place in tart pan and refrigerate for another hour. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until lightly brown. About 15 minutes in, prick the bottom with a fork to keep it from bubbling up. Cool completely before filling.
Meyer Lemon Filling (adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking book)
3/4 to 1 cup sugar (less if you like it pucker-worthy)
Grated zest of three Meyer lemons
4 large eggs
¾ cup fresh Meyer lemon juice
10 ounces of unsalted butter, room temperature cut into pieces (about 2.5 sticks)
- You will need a blender for this variation. I burned out my Williams Sonoma Waring, so make sure you are careful with your blender. You will need an instant read thermometer and a strainer.
- Put the sugar in a heat proof bowl (you are going to set it over simmering water) and add the zest. Mix it thoroughly with your fingers to blend it together. It looks like coarse sand when you’ve done it well enough. Leave it to sit for 30 minutes to flavor the sugar. Whisk in the eggs and lemon juice until fully incorporated. Set over the simmering water and stir. Keep stirring until it reaches 180 degrees and is thick. It will get foamy and form some bubbles, but don’t stop stirring. The end comes quickly so keep an eye on the temperature. It does take some juggling to stir, take the temperature and make sure the bowl stays where you want it, but believe me, if I can do it, anyone can.
- As soon as it reaches 180 degrees, remove it from the heat, and using the mesh strainer, push the cream through into the blender. Let it set for about 5 minutes and stir a couple of times. Get the temp to about 140 degrees. Start up the blender on high and as it is going, drop in the room temp butter pieces a few at a time until it is all in there. If your blender is overheating (as mine was) turn it off for a minute to cool it down and start it up again on high. Try to get three minutes of high speed blending going before you quit entirely after the butter is in there. Dorie says that is the secret of Pierre Herme's fine lemon cream – adding and blending the butter on high after cooking the cream.
- When it is light and airy (you will see be able to see it) pour it into a container and cover it with plastic wrap on the surface before you cover the container with a lid. That keeps a skin from forming. Chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Don’t stir it up if you are putting it into the tart shell unless you have time to let it set again. I found that whisking it again before putting it in the tart shell made it too loose.
- Spoon the chilled lemon filling into the cooled tart shell. Top with freshly whipped cream, or cream fraiche and your favorite berries. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers. Like there will be any (not).