I'm always on the lookout for different and unusual recipes for my baking projects. Even if it's not particularly something I'm interested in eating, I'll make something for the novelty value of the recipe, or the chance to try my hand at a new skill. If I made things solely because I was craving them, my baking repertoire would be much smaller, and I would gain approximately a million pounds. Things are better this way.
So when I stumbled across a recipe for a Shaker lemon pie made with Meyer lemons, I was intrigued on three fronts: A) I've never had a Meyer lemon, since they're rare and their growing season is short; B) Justin likes lemon desserts even if I don't (recall, if you will, his birthday cake last October); and C) I'd never heard of a Shaker lemon pie, and I was fascinated by the idea of putting whole sliced lemons into a pie, instead of a lemon curd-like filling. The Shakers, who believed in thrift and not wasting anything, developed this pie recipe to utilize all parts of the lemon. I wasn't sure if such a thing would work, but when I mentioned this crazy new recipe I'd found to my coworker Lydia, who also enjoys baking, she ensured me that Shaker lemon pies are indeed delicious, and that her family has been making them for years. Based on her recommendation, I decided to give it a go.
I managed to track down some Meyer lemons at Whole Foods, as my local grocery store, unsurprisingly, didn't carry them. Meyer lemons are believed to be a hybrid of regular lemons and mandarin oranges, giving them a sweeter, more floral flavor than a regular lemon, as well as a thinner, more orange-colored skin. They became popular in the U.S. in the early 20th century, but nearly all existing plants were destroyed in the 1940s when they were discovered to be asymptomatic carriers of a disease that threatened to wipe out the entire American citrus crop. After years of experimenting, scientists finally developed a safe variety for cultivation, but they're still rare compared to regular lemons.
With my exotic citrus in tow, and all of my kitchen supplies recently unpacked, I was all set to conquer my first baking project in my new kitchen. Aside from not reading the recipe very carefully, which resulted in some unfortunate timing issues (like preparing and chilling the crust, only to learn that the lemons for the filling had to macerate for two additional hours), the recipe was as simple to make as had been promised to me. I experimented with the much-lauded Cook's Illustrated pie crust recipe, which I had attempted to make last time, and I am pleased to report that it was my best pie crust to date. It was flaky, buttery perfection, and it even looked the best, because I finally borrowed a standard-size pie plate from my mom after figuring out that I never had enough overhang to make a decorative edge on my pies because my pie plate was one inch larger than average.
Unfortunately, it turned out that my heavenly crust encased one of the most awful products to ever exit my kitchen. Seriously, this pie was foul. It tasted like nothing but bitter lemon rinds to me. Even Justin, lover of all things lemon, could only muster the following praise: "The crust is really good." At least he ate his whole piece, whereas I took about two bites of the filling before scraping the rest out and eating the crust plain. I invited Lisa over to try it, since she's the other great lemon-lover in my life, for a third opinion, and while she seemed to like it better than either Justin or I, she agreed with my assessment that it would probably have been better if I had zested the lemons, removed the pith, then used the interior of the fruits.
Shortly after she left, we pried the top crust off the pie, and put the rest of it down the garbage disposal. It was that bad. I didn't even want to take the leftovers to work to dispose of them, as I didn't want that disaster sullying my baking reputation around the office. Nobody is perfect, but this was probably the worst dessert I've ever made. At least I can take solace in the fact that I've now found a winning pie crust recipe, and I can stop experimenting on that front, but memories of this miserable lemon pie will haunt my dreams. I won't bother giving you the recipe, as I firmly believe it should die a fiery death, but I will share the recipe I used for the crust, because it was the only good thing to come out of this tragedy. Just be sure to use it with a better filling, okay?
adapted from Cook's Illustrated
12.5 oz. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 cubes
1/4 c. very cold shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 c. very cold lard, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 c. very cold vodka
1/4 c. very cold water
1. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor, and pulse to combine. Sprinkle the butter, shortening, and lard evenly over the flour mixture, and process until fats are in pea-size chunks, four to seven pulses. Empty mixture into a medium-size bowl.2. Sprinkle water and vodka over mixture. With a rubber spatula, use a folding motion to mix, pressing down on the dough, until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten into 4-inch disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour before using.