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Jan 8, 2012 02:00 AM

Failed lemon tart - my fault? suggestions for next time?

I ran across a recipe I clipped a few years ago and decided to try it today. This is the recipe:

I followed this recipe to the letter, even when things seemed odd (such as sprinkling an entire 1/4 cup of sugar on top). Well, it mostly turned out great. The crust was delicious, the filling was the right texture, the whole thing held its shape beautifully when cut, etc. ...

EXCEPT, the filling was unpalatably bitter. The accompanying article said it would be quite tart, but I don't think it was supposed to be bitter. I assume the bitterness resulted from the pith and peel, but the recipe said to leave at least five of the lemons unpeeled, and I sliced the lemons very thin using a mandoline. Other than the bitterness, the recipe was a success, and I'd like to try it again sometime. Assuming the recipe is not flawed, can anyone suggest what I may have done wrong, or how to avoid this problem in the future? Thanks.

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  1. did you use organic lemons? While non-organic lemons are okay for juice, if you're using the peel you want to make sure they're organic, as the chemicals used in the agricultural process (as well as the waxes and such after harvest) will give off-flavors to any recipe calling for the use of the peel.

    3 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      I would try it again using Meyer lemons which are thin skinned and not as sour as 'regular' lemons.

      1. re: Athena

        The accompanying article did mention the joys of Meyer lemons, but I didn't think they were intended for this recipe. Nevertheless, that might be worth trying. It would be less tart, and hopefully not overwhelmed by the sweetness of the crust, but also less bitter.

      2. re: sunshine842

        They were not organic. Thanks for the tip.

      3. 3/4 cup sugar does not sound anywhere near enough for 8 lemons! Especially since 5 of them are used pith and all, and since there is nothing else in the filling (no eggs, no flour, no butter).

        I often make David Lebovitz's whole lemon bars. It's a very different recipe, of course, but as a comparison, the ratio of lemon to sugar is one whole lemon plus 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, to one cup of sugar. And they still turn out zingy with a distinct (but pleasant) touch of bitterness.

        1 Reply
        1. re: DeppityDawg

          I routinely make lemon bars, but not ones with whole lemons. I'll have to check out this recipe. Thanks! (By the way, my go-to recipe is the "lemon curd squares" from the 1970s edition of "Joy of Cooking". There may be better ones, but it hasn't let me down yet.)

        2. Ah, yes! The Shaker Lemon Pie fail! Yes, I have made this in the past, brought it (and fortunately two other pies) to a Thanksgiving celebration, and had to toss the whole blooming thing because it was as bitter as gall. I was happy I tasted it before serving it. Basically, the problem is that the lemon pith is horribly bitter, and no amount of soaking the slices in sugar or anything else is going to measurably change this. Every time I see a recipe like the one in the NY Times, I know that there is no way that this recipe can work unless you are in possession of magic lemons that don't have much pith. I haven't ever seen them. To avoid this problem in the future, NEVER make a lemon pie that uses the entire lemon. If you used more sugar, you would have a pie that would be simultaneously too sweet and inedibly bitter. There are many wonderful lemon pies out there such as this lemon tart recipe --
          that yield a fabulous lemony dessert.

          9 Replies
          1. re: roxlet

            You can turn lemon peel (zest + pith) into something deliciously sweet and only slightly, nicely bitter, but it takes a lot more sugar and a lot more cooking time than this NYT recipe indicates. And you wouldn't cook the peels along with the flesh of the lemons.

            I like the idea of this recipe, and I'm sure it could be modified to work. It's too bad this version got published and still haunts the Internet, hunting for more victims.

            1. re: DeppityDawg

              Maybe, but that's not how these recipes go. Candied lemon peel is one thing, this type of pie is quite another. To make a Shaker Lemon Pie, you are instructed to "marinate" the slices of lemon (peel, pith and flesh) in sugar. There must be a type of lemon that has very little pith that could make this work, but I've never seen it...

              1. re: roxlet

                I think it is safe to say that people have successfully made edible Shaker lemon pies. It must happen thousands of times every day. A quick Google search shows that the proportions are more like 2 lemons to 2 cups of sugar (and the filling also includes a lot of egg).

                Anyway, weem's recipe is not for a Shaker lemon pie. It combines some aspects of that recipe (the slicing of whole lemons and the maceration) with the technique for candied fruit (cooking in syrup). Why not? But the actual measurements — amounts and cooking times — seem to have been insufficiently tested.

                1. re: DeppityDawg

                  Whatever. Why don't you make one and report back?

                  1. re: roxlet

                    Hey DeppitDawg and roxlet, thanks for this thread. Sometimes I enjoy reading about cooking as much as actually doing it. It always amazes me how the subtlest variations can yield such different results. Thanks for all your tips and suggestions.

            2. re: roxlet

              The Saveur lemon tart is pure edible gold. And yep, it's a pith thing.

              1. re: mamachef

                My favorite lemon tart is in Richard Sax's Classic Home Desserts--World's Best Lemon Tart, which is the Tarte au Citron recipe from Nezard in Paris. The recipe calls for 1 scant cup of sugar with the juice of 2 lemons and zest of 3 lemons. I've never had that one fail me.

                1. re: lisaonthecape

                  Thanks for the tip. Yes, the lemon squares I regularly make use about those proportions. I think it's mostly the pith in the tart I tried that was giving me grief.

                2. re: mamachef

                  I love Saveur. I'll have to check out the recipe. Thanks for the tip.