Lemon pie

A taste of elsewhere

First of all, somebody had to invent lemon curd. Surprisingly, austere Anglican Quakers took it upon themselves in 1700 to create this unctuous delicacy. Twenty years on, it’s said that an Italian pastry chef by the name of Gasparini created meringue – a mixture of whipped egg whites and sugar – in Meiringen, Duchy of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha: in short, in Switzerland.

In 1806 Elizabeth Goodwell, an American pastry chef, had all the ingredients she needed to write the official recipe for lemon pie: cream with eggs, sugar, lemon juice and zest on a shortbread tart base, topped with meringue. It has since become one of the most popular desserts in France.

Creating lemon curd

Originally the recipe called for limes. Boiling juice and zest are added to beaten eggs and sugar to give the mixture its intense lemony flavour and yellow hue. The cooking process is the same as custard, and you can add gelatine to make it thicker. Once cooled, swirl small pieces of cold butter into the mixture.

Back to base

The base requires a sweet short-crust pastry made from flour, butter, eggs and icing sugar. Pastry chefs add almond or hazelnut powder, which absorbs the humidity of the filling more effectively. Let the pastry rest before laying it in a pan, setting it aside to cool and then pre-cooking it with white beans to prevent it from losing its shape. The tart is filled with curd and then there’s a fairly short cooking time.

The special meringue with which lemon pie is topped is the Swiss-Italian version: it still features beaten egg whites – but instead of adding dry icing sugar, the egg whites and the sugar are heated in a double boiler and then mixed with the whipped egg whites. The filling should be shiny and form a crest at the tip of the beater. Make a disc the size of the pie and let it dry in the oven at 80°C overnight before crowning the lemon pie with it.

Key lime pie

In France, the most famous lemons come from the southern town of Menton and are said to be as fragrant as those from Sicily. But where can one find the finest limes? The answer is in the Florida Keys, which of course is where you’ll find Florida’s emblematic dessert: Key lime pie. The filling is a mixture of condensed milk and lime juice whose acidity makes the milk curdle. By the way, as strange is it may seem to English speakers, the French have no separate word for “lime”. They say “citron vert” – green lemon.

Lemon aidDiscovered almost 3,000 years ago in the Himalayan forests, the lemon was cultivated by the Chinese from the 4th millennium. It spread around the Mediterranean thanks to the Arabs, who called it lî mum, which became the English lemon and the Spanish limon. In Ancient Greece, lemons were used only in perfume and medicine. Their medicinal virtues were well known: sailors consumed lemon juice to protect themselves from scurvy, not knowing that they owed this effect to abundant vitamin C. (The American slang term “limey”, used in a rather derogatory fashion to refer to a British person, derives from this usage.)  Lemons became fashionable in France in the 17th century – their French name “citron” comes from the botanical name in Latin “Citrus medica limonum”.

Handy little tip


Place the shortbread pastry on a sheet of parchment paper, then cover it with another sheet before using the rolling pin in order to spread it easily without sticking.

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