Thrice-Baked Lemon Pie

The days are getting longer. The air is warmer, fresher than it’s been in months. The birds are chirping again, and I even saw a tree blooming in Tribeca the other day.  Never mind the occasional surprise snowfall and the fact that I’m slowly drowning in grad school work—it’s officially spring and I feel alive. We’ve emerged from our winter slump and all of a sudden I feel compelled to do brunch on Sunday mornings, to take long walks through Washington Square Park, to run off to dance class every chance I get, to finally attend to all those creative projects I started but never got around to finishing. Never mind that there are still only 24 hours in a day—my energy and ambitions are boundless this time of year. Sometimes Simon tries to get me to slow it down a bit, stop being such an energizer bunny, sleep in for once. This doesn’t usually work. Two weeks ago, I got up at 9am to bake pie. 

I’ll have you know, though, it wasn’t just any pie. It was a black bottom lemon pie from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book that Simon got me for Christmas, to help me carry out the rather ambitious culinary project I began last July—mastering the art of pie baking. Now the pie book itself is an extraordinary thing. It was written by two sisters who own the lovely Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn, and it takes you through absolutely every step of the pie baking process from selecting seasonal ingredients to preparing the crust from scratch to baking the custard or fruit filling just right. The book isn’t for the casual baker or the traditional one; its instructions are slightly geared towards perfectionists like myself and the recipes are all highly creative spins on typical favorites. So my black bottom lemon pie experience turned out to be quite the adventure.

First—and this was about three months ago—I went on a hunt in search of all the equipment our kitchen still needed in order to make this black bottom lemon pie happen: a pastry blender, a rolling pin, pie weights, a citrus juicer, a grater, and a fine-mesh sieve. Second—now we’re back to 9am two weeks ago—I went on another hunt, traipsing all about the Upper West Side for Meyer lemons, a sort of cross between an ordinary lemon and an orange that the recipe absolutely needed. Then, after obtaining all the other, more basic ingredients, I got to work. I followed all of the pie book’s instructions for preparing the all-butter crust to a T: Mix the dry ingredients. Cut in butter with a pastry blender. Add ice water and apple cider vinegar. Bring the dough together into a ball. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin. Fit it into a buttered pie pan. Crimp the edges. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Prick the crust all over with a fork. Freeze for at least 10 minutes. Line crust with aluminum foil and pie weights and pre-bake it for 20 minutes. Brush crust with egg white glaze and pre-bake for 3 more minutes. Breathe. Your crust is finally done.

Sound like a lot of steps? It was. In fact, this is a much-abbreviated version of all the steps; I’ve left out all sorts of highly specific tips and techniques and instructions that were also included in the pie book and that played a pretty significant role in making the crust work. But all I’d like to say about the crust is that all the work was completely worth it and I wouldn’t change a thing next time. All the refrigerating and freezing and waiting between steps made me impatient but made the dough wonderful to work with, and the final crust both aesthetically pleasing and texturally heavenly. I felt incredibly accomplished when my pre-baked crust popped out of the oven looking like a work of art.

Making the filling was significantly easier. I melted some chopped Ghirardelli chocolate and heavy cream and spread it all over the bottom and sides of the crust to create a glorious “black bottom.” And while that was setting in the fridge, I juiced and zested four Meyer lemons and one orange, combined this mixture thoroughly with eggs, sugar, and cream, strained it through my recently bought fine-mesh sieve directly into the chocolatey pie crust. Then I baked the whole pie at 325 degrees for about 40 minutes. Simon cheered me on and took countless photos throughout this whole process, and when the pie was finally out of the oven, I let it cool for a few hours while we went to see Insurgent in theaters. Guilty pleasures. :)

We tried the pie around 2 in the morning, after our late-night movie, and it was everything I had hoped it would be and more, creamy and immensely flavorful, with the dark chocolate bottom perfectly offsetting the sweet yet tart taste of the lemon filling. The crust that I’d spent half the day working on didn’t fail to impress either—crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, golden brown in color…certainly my best work thus far. We had only a slice each that particular night, but continued to eat the pie every night for the rest of that week. We thought about inviting friends over to share it with….but it was just so delicious...we’ll share next time. ;)

And now I suppose I’ll confess…I call my most successful black bottom lemon pie a thrice-baked lemon pie because that is in fact the number of times I had to bake it before I achieved this beacon of deliciousness that I describe above. The first time I baked this pie, you see, I followed the instructions in my pie book a little too closely. Don’t overbake the pie, it said. Take it out of the oven when it’s set but still quite wobbly. My pie was wobbly all right. So wobbly that when I eagerly cut a slice for Simon and I after it had fully cooled, the whole thing transformed into a gooey, underbaked mess. So what did I do? I put that pie right back in the oven and baked it again. By that point of course, it was ugly, fairly unsalvageable, and certainly not blog-worthy. So two weeks ago, when I woke up at 9am feeling giddy because it’s finally spring, I started from scratch and baked that black bottom pie a third time. I used my own judgment and let it bake until it was only very slightly wobbly and voila, the third time was the charm. Pie isn’t something you can just master the first time around, it seems. Making mistakes is a necessary part of the process. Which means that this particular culinary project (like most of my other projects…) is going to be a whole lot lengthier and more complicated than I originally thought. It also means that we get to eat more pie. No complaints about that!