When Life Hands You Lemons

This isn’t a cooking blog, but it is my blog, which means I can write about cooking if I want.

Our little island on the east Florida coast is covered up with citrus trees that brighten the waning months of the year as their fruits ripen when the winter solstice approaches. Alas, the only citrus trees in my yard are a couple of sour kumquats that might make a decent marmalade, but not much else. Much of the prolific grapefruit, navel orange, and lemon harvest falls unwanted to rot in people’s yards. I eye the fallen fruit jealously as I ride by, but occasionally some kind soul will fill a wheelbarrow with grapefruit to leave by the sidewalk with a handwritten sign that says “FREE” and that makes me very happy indeed.

This year, a co-worker found out that I was buying grapefruit from the grocery store and took pity on me, delivering a few grocery bags to my cubicle the very next day. One of the bags was filled with lemons.

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If you’ve never seen lemons growing on a tree, it would probably be quite a shock to find out that they’re not all the uniform kiwi-sized yellow fruits that you find in the grocery store. The smallest ones are golf-ball sized while the largest are easily bigger than a baseball. If the lemons don’t come from a managed orchard, they’ll no doubt be tarnished with gray sooty mold. Don’t worry about it. And don’t try to wash it off until you’re ready to use them – that’s a rookie mistake. Washing the fruit just breaks open the pores and causes the oils in the skin to dry out, which causes the fruit to rot more quickly. They should stay good for a month if you handle them properly.

When life hands you lemons, I say screw the lemonade. I want a lemon pie. Not a lemon meringue pie, mind you, but a real lemon pie. I’d never had one until last winter, but once I had my first slice I was hooked. I got the recipe several years ago from a woodworking book. What was a pie recipe doing in a woodworking book? Good question. Apparently the pie was first made by the Shaker communities of the Midwest. The book was about the furniture of the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village near Lexington, Kentucky. Kerry Pierce, the author, found the pie too good not to mention in his book. I was intrigued.

Fair warning: this pie is not for the easily puckered. It is as tart as it is sweet, with a hint of bitterness. The rinds don’t get very soft, so the texture is chewy. And it is powerfully lemony. I’m the only one in my family who will eat it, but let’s just say that it doesn’t bother me a bit that I don’t have to share.


  • 2 medium lemons
  • 2 cups sugar
  • Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie
  • 4 eggs, beaten well
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

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  • Using your sharpest knife (now is the time to show off that armhair-shaving honing that you perfected in the woodshop), slice each lemon crosswise, as thinly as possible, into paper-thin circles. If you can drape them over the knife blade like the clocks in a Salvador Dali painting, you’re doing it right.
  • Chop the thinly sliced lemons coarsely, so that the largest pieces of lemon rind and pith are less than an inch long.
  • Add the sugar to the bowl of lemons, and stir to mix them together really well. Cover and set aside at room temperature, for at least 4 hours or better yet overnight. Stir occasionally to mix everything together well.
  • Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with crust, leaving at least an inch of overhang.
  • Beat the eggs well, then add the eggs and salt to the bowl of sugary lemons. Stir to mix everything evenly. Pour the filling into the piecrust.
  • Use a little water to wet the top rim of the piecrust. Roll the remaining dough into a 10-inch circle and place it carefully over the filling. Trim away the extra piecrust, leaving a 1-inch overhang extending beyond the rim of the pie pan. Fold the crust up and over, and crimp. Cut a few steam vents in the top of the pie.
  • Place the pie on a baking sheet and place it on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and bake until the filling is bubbling and thickened, and the pastry crust is cooked and nicely browned, 25 to 35 minutes more. Let the pie cool to room temperature for the juices to set up (if you can wait that long).
  • Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Then write me a long and gushing thank-you letter. You’re welcome in advance.

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Bonus tip: Everything tastes better on a wooden plate.



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