If there’s a lemon dessert on a restaurant menu, I’m probably going to order it. This is probably not surprising, given the plethora of lemon desserts that already exist in this space, but given the upcoming all-things-chocolate holiday, it bears repeating. I like chocolate as much as the next… well, probably not as much as the next person, but I do like it. It’s just that the tangy, fruity side of the menu is much more tempting. So it’s no surprise that my Valentine’s treat to myself is lemon. Lemon cream pie. With chocolate, because it is Valentine’s Day after all. And pie because it’s month two in the Year of Pie.
Lemon cream is the tarter, more lemony cousin of lemon curd. It’s the same list of ingredients – lemon juice and zest, sugar, egg yolks, butter – but the butter is whipped into the lemon/egg yolk custard and ends up thick and pudding-like. In curd the butter is melted into the custard and the end result is sort of like marmalade, with the butter muting the lemon flavor. I first discovered it about four years ago, when I was looking for a dessert to impress a friend of Jeff’s. He was a good friend and one I hadn’t met before, and I knew he was openly skeptical of whether I measured up. I’m not going to say the lemon cream pie made up his mind, but by the end of the dessert I had no more worries that we would be friends. And when I made the pie in the pictures last week, there was silence during dessert. Everyone had seconds. And thirds. It may not be fall-in-love-with-you level of delicious, but it’s certainly wanna-stick-around-for-more level. And let’s be honest, few desserts can do more than that.
You could get away with just lemon cream poured into a crust; that’s how the original was anyway. Or you could top it with a meringue for a variation on the classic pie. But this version is chocolate and lemon, one of my favorite flavor combinations. It was one of the first things I wrote down when I thought up this year-of-pie idea. I wanted something I would love to have for Valentine’s Day. Something for the people who choose the fruit desserts on the menu, but would still totally eat that piece of chocolate. Even if all you do is look at the pictures, I hope it makes your Valentine’s Day – or Galentine’s, or really any day of the year – special.
The Year of Pie so far:
Lemon Cream Pie
To be clear: this pie requires quite a bit of chilling and should be started the day before you want to eat it. Make the crust dough and the cream the night before, put them in the fridge to chill, then the next day bake the crust, spread on the chocolate, and pour in the cream. It is a fair number of steps but broken into two bouts of work it takes about an hour the first day and another hour (including baking time) the next day to put it all together. It’s worth it.
Giving credit where credit is due, the recipe for lemon cream comes from Dorie Greenspan’s always trustworthy Baking book, but the idea for a chocolate and lemon pie comes from Suzanne Goin’s lovely Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Which just goes to show that the inspiration and the recipe don’t always come from the same place.
Also, I hate to say so, but this recipe does really need a blender. If you don’t have one, you can make do with a) a food processor, b) a stand mixer, or c) a hand mixer but it won’t get as light and creamy as it would with a blender. Still delicious, but more lemon curd pie than lemon cream pie.
For the lemon cream (which you can just eat on its own too):
1 cup sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
3/4 cup lemon juice (takes about 4 lemons)
21 tablespoons butter (2 sticks + 5 tbs), cut into small pieces
For the crust:
1 ½ cups flour
½ confectioner’s sugar
½ tsp kosher salt
1 stick plus 1 tbs cold butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup chocolate chips
Optional: chocolate shavings (made with a chocolate bar and a peeler), for serving
COMBINE flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor or a bowl large enough to get your hands in. Grease a 9-inch tart pan for the crust.
ADD the butter and work it in on medium speed, or alternatively use your hands to knead the butter in until it becomes sort of like meal with lots of little bits of butter. If you use your hands, use just the fingertips. They’re cooler and the butter will melt more slowly.
ADD the egg to the mixture and work it in for a few minutes. If you’re doing this by hand it may help to use a fork to help this along. First it will look like nothing is going to happen and then it will come together into a nice dough. Because the egg has very little water, you can work this for a while without building up too much gluten.
PRESS the dough into the tart pan using your fingers to get it up the sides of the pan. It helps to use a small glass or measuring cup (greased, please) to get a smooth and even surface that is the same thickness all around.
COOL the crust in the fridge, preferably overnight, or if you’re in a rush you can do it in the freezer for 30 minutes or so. The longer it can cool, the less likely it is to shrink on you when you bake it.
COMBINE sugar zest, eggs, and lemon juice in a heatproof bowl and stir together. Put a pot with a few inches of water on the stove over medium heat and place the bowl over the pot – make sure the bowl does not touch the water. You’re creating a double boiler so the steam will heat the custard, rather than putting it over direct heat
WHISK the mixture over the steam until it reaches 180F and the mixture has thickened. This takes about 15 minutes and requires pretty constant whisking so the eggs don’t scramble. When it’s done the mixture will be relatively thick and it will pass the spoon test (dip a spoon in, drag your finger through it, and the blank spot you created should stay that way without custard running into it). When the cream reaches that point, remove it from the heat and strain it through a fine mesh strainer into the container of a blender (look, I know I said whisk constantly but if you’re like me you got bored and stopped at some point so you have little scrambley egg curds but if you strain them out now, no one need ever know).
BLEND the custard on a medium speed and slowly drop in the butter a few pieces at a time, letting it fully incorporate after each addition. Once all the butter is in, let the blender run for a few extra minutes to get some extra air in there and to ensure that there are no lurking butter chunks.
COOL the lemon cream in a container with a piece of plastic wrap over it to prevent a skin from forming. It needs at least a few hours, preferably overnight, in the fridge to firm up. (You could also serve this as lemon cream pudding with a few chocolate shavings and no one would mind.)
After everything has cooled…
PREHEAT the oven to 375.
DOCK the chilled crust all over with a fork and then line it with foil and pour in some beans, rice, or other weights. Both these things will keep it from bubbling up in the oven.
BAKE the crust for 25 minutes. Then remove the foil with the weights and let it crisp for another 5-10 minutes, until the crust is golden crown all over, and slightly darker along the edges. Remove it from the oven and let it cool for about 20 minutes.
MELT the chocolate chips, either over a double boiler or by microwaving for 30 seconds, stirring, and then microwaving for 10 seconds-and-stir intervals until it is completely melted.
BRUSH the crust with the melted chocolate. You can just do one layer, or build it up by brushing a full coat, putting the crust in the fridge for 5 minutes, and then brushing on an additional coat (reheat the chocolate if it goes solid in that time). Then freeze the crust for 10 minutes to firm up the chocolate.
POUR the lemon cream into the chocolate-coated tart pan, spread it with a spatula to make it even, and sprinkle on the chocolate shavings, if using. Then keep it refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it. The cream is soft and may look like it’s going to run everywhere you slice it, but as long as the crust is cold when you pour in the cream, it should stay together when you cut into it.
Serve this tart within a few hours of assembling it. The lemon cream will break down the chocolate and soak into the crust within a day or so, which doesn’t change the flavor but does make the whole thing look less fancy.