This for me is the epitome of lemon pie and the simplest one to make.
It all started with a reference to an old pie created by cooks who adored lemons but did not have plenty, so they considered them precious…
This fruit/condiment which for us is trivial and almost worthless, was truly precious for the Shakers, the early nineteenth-century religious group living in communities throughout New England. “Shaker lemon pie uses the entire lemon, from yellow peel through white pith […] This means slicing two whole lemons absolutely paper thin and macerating them for hours in sugar. If you can drape them over the knife blade like the watches in Salvador Dali’s surrealistic paintings, you’re on the right track. The resulting pie includes a subtle sharp flavor from the pith, and the texture tends toward the chewy side, but it all works for the aforementioned lemon-lovers like myself,” writes Nancy McDermott in her book Southern Pies.
Away from New England, Shakers also established “…a vibrant fellowship in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Preserved as a living history museum, today’s Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill illuminates their traditions and creations […] Their restaurants serve this signature confection, Shaker Lemon Pie,” concludes McDermott in her introduction to the brilliant recipe that inspired me.
As soon as I came upon this incredibly simple, yet exquisite lemon cream, I felt compelled to try it. I had lemons, of course, and eggs from our neighbors’ hens. I wanted to make the pie fast, so I didn’t bother making a pie crust; just lined the pan and topped the cream with some leftover shredded phyllo (kunefe or kataifi) pastry that I happen to have in my freezer. Because it was not enough, I halved the recipe and after I baked the pie I didn’t even have the patience to wait for it to cool completely, and took a bite: it was even more delicious than I had imagined! And, strangely enough, the next days its flavor deepened and got even better.
Once I decided to definitely use the shredded phyllo, I followed the Serious Eats’ well described instruction for Kunefe, the traditional Middle Eastern sweet that basically uses it.
Knowing me and my affinity for substituting olive oil for butter –which I usually don’t have in my fridge– you probably have guessed that I rubbed the shredded phyllo well with olive oil before spreading it on the pan and topping the lemon cream. You can certainly choose butter if you like.
We have particularly sweet lemons, but the recipe works well with all kinds and, I assure you, it is foolproof.
Adapted from Nancy McDermott
Makes a 9-inch (23 cm.) pie
2 medium lemons
2 cups sugar
1 pound (500 gram.) frozen shredded phyllo, thawed (see NOTE)
1 cup melted butter, olive oil, or a combination
4 large eggs, or 5 medium
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
Using your sharpest knife (a serrated knife is ideal), trim each lemon to remove the stem end and tip. Half each lemon discard the pips, then slice crosswise as thinly as you can possibly do it, into paper-thin half circles. Scoop up as much of the escaping lemon juices as you work and add them to the bowl of sliced lemons. Chop the thinly sliced lemons coarsely, so that the largest pieces of lemon rind and pith are only 1 inch long, again gathering escaping juices back into the bowl for their flavor.
Add half the sugar to the bowl of lemon pieces and stir to mix them together really well. Cover and set aside at room temperature, for at least 30 minutes, and as long as overnight. Stir occasionally with a big spoon, to mix everything together well.
With a serrated knife, slice the shredded phyllo crosswise into 1/4- to 1/2-inch lengths and transfer to a large bowl. Pour the melted butter or olive oil over the phyllo and, using your hands, toss and mix the phyllo with fat in a gentle rubbing motion to ensure that all the shreds are evenly coated, about 5 minutes.
Heat the oven to 450 F (230 C).
Line a 9-inch pie pan with parchment paper, and spread half the shredded phyllo at the bottom, then pressing a couple handfuls all around to make the sides of the pie.
In a bowl, using a hand-held mixer or a whisk, beat the eggs with the rest of the sugar, until light and fluffy. Add the flour and salt to the bowl, and beat a bit more to fully incorporate, then pour in the softened, sugary lemons. Stir to mix everything evenly and well.
Pour this filling into the shredded phyllo crust and top with the rest of the shredded phyllo.
Place the pie on a baking sheet and on the middle shelf of the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 F (about 200 C) and bake until the filling is bubbling and thickened, and the pastry crust is cooked and handsomely browned, about 35 minutes more or as needed. Lift the parchment paper to make sure the bottom is light golden. If it starts to darken on the top, cover loosely with aluminum foil and continue baking.
Place the pie on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool to room temperature before cutting to serve. The pie is better the next day, and keeps for up to 5 days, if you manage to resist devouring it…
NOTE: If you like you can half the shredded phyllo or omit completely, and use cookie or cake crumbs and some coarsely ground almonds, if you like, much like you do for cheesecakes.