My father planted a lone lemon tree in the backyard. This was about the time that he went on his homegrown produce kick and had planted a small vegetable patch at the side of the house, which eventually would boast big fat red tomatoes and long, slim chili peppers. He worked long and hard on that 6 x 2-foot kitchen garden, hacking at the hard, dry sand until it gave way, dragging carloads of manure from the horse stables on the other side of the river to feed the soil, and keeping up a valiant but losing battle with the mole who dug trenches through the yard, playing his own private game of whack-a-mole with a shovel. What could possibly have inspired this serious man to try and master the unforgiving wasteland that is Florida dirt? What would influence and embolden this man to spend weekends out under the harsh Florida sun in order to cultivate and ultimately harvest a couple of dozen splotchy tomatoes that his children were afraid to eat or strings of chili peppers that hung forlornly like old, forgotten holiday decorations in the kitchen over the sink, untouched, for years on end?
My father was a patient man, taking on projects and sticking diligently to each and every one in the face of the mocking and teasing laughter of his wife and the worried head shaking of his children. His long, constant war against weeds and the barrenness of the arid ground rarely produced more than a short spell of green grass in the front yard, grass thick, scratchy and tough, and a desert spread out before us behind the house full of burrs that hid among the twining spines of whatever grew hard against the ground, burrs that stuck and clung to bare feet and clothes. Yet he hung on and forged ahead, his patience and persistence, both signs of the engineer that he was, trumping whatever Mother Nature threw in his path to trip him up.
He had lovingly planted two heady, fragrant gardenia bushes just in front of the house that held up against the tropical heat and humidity, and produced beautiful, voluptuously plump white flowers year after year, no doubt inspiring his green thumb. His passion was phenomenal and admirable, indeed, one had to – and did – give him that. His joy at digging in the dirt, the sheer pleasure in producing one beautiful flower or a bag of tomatoes was wonderful to behold. This man who spent all day, five days a week in the confines of a job and office, ticking numbers off in his head, doing outrageous unimaginable mathematical gymnastics, sending men to the moon, loved nothing more than spending his weekends doing the most simple, basic things life had to offer: taking his children to the swimming pool, tinkering under the hood of a car, and gardening.
So when he dragged home and planted that lemon tree, we smiled and nodded our heads in understanding, eye rolling kept discreetly behind his back. (Okay, there may also have been a bit of excitement at the romantic idea of being able to step out into the yard and pull a fresh lemon off of one’s own tree.) By then, this may have been the early 1970’s, the yard was barren, the sandy brown dirt brazenly having taken over the entire area, much to our chagrin. Nothing living could or would survive that nuclear wilderness. And anyway, we (his excruciatingly pragmatic children) reasoned, we could just drive across the river to the citrus groves and bring home sacks full of lemons for a pittance. But, no, nothing would ever sway dad from his resolve. Especially where growing was concerned.
We suspect to this day that when he was a child in Brooklyn his mother may have had a vegetable patch. We do know that she grew grapes strung up on elegant little trellised arbors and dad would occasionally, wistfully mention in passing that he dreamed of having grapevines in the back yard like his mother had. I can only imagine the scene, the beautiful, gracious mother surrounded by a brood of doting, handsome children, six of them, as she planted, explaining each step, gently guiding their little hands as they helped. And here was dad, as gentle as I imagine his mother to have been, curiously passionate about his own bit of dirt, concentrated on growing what he could.
I can’t even remember if we ever saw a lemon grow on that tree. Maybe one or two. But it stood there proudly, all alone, in that backyard, the backyard that never saw either the swimming pool or the tennis court or, years later, the guest room or workshed that he talked about and planned for us. But that tree must have, over the years, witnessed excited, chattering children as they kicked a ball back and forth or built tents against the hedges out of old sheets and clothespins or huddled together taking turns peering through the binoculars up towards the sky as another rocket took off from NASA where dad was at work, making history happen, quietly, modestly, just like dad.
There is something so nostalgic about a chiffon pie. Images and memories of diners and cafeterias, or dad standing at the counter, store-bought piecrust nestled in an aluminum dish at the ready, folding Cool Whip into pudding until thick and creamy before piling it into the pastry shell. And there is something so amazingly sexy about a chiffon pie, pale lemon cream thickening lazily until smooth as silken custard; egg whites thick and thicker, glossy and voluptuous; fold one into the other, delicately lace the two textures together to create a luxurious mélange, whipped up light as air, cool and creamy. Gently pile the lemon-suffused chiffon into a baked sweet pastry crust and chill. And serve with something oh-so feminine as plump strawberries, blushingly sweet, and heavenly whipped cream.
This is a classic recipe straight out of the 1950’s, its delicate pastel yellow color and light frothy texture reminiscent of our grandmother’s kitchen or Sunday lunch at the neighborhood diner. Or, in my case, my dad’s kitchen and home baked treats. I found the identical recipe in Abigail Serves, a United Order of True Sisters community cookbook from Albany, New York, circa 1956 which my great-aunt Mae co-chaired, and my mother’s old copy of Reader’s Digest Secrets of Better Cooking, 1973. A simple recipe perfect for the family’s dinner table every day, although one may certainly want to keep this for a very special occasion.
The texture once chilled overnight is ethereal, a wisp of coolness on the tongue, a hint of lemon lingering behind, a tart that literally melts in the mouth. Cool and clean, this beautiful pie is the perfect dessert after either a heavy meal or light summer fare when all that is needed, all that is desired is a kiss of sweetness and citrus tang.
- Pre-baked 9- or 10-inch Sweet Pastry Crust (find the recipe and instructions here)
- 1 envelope (about 1¾ teaspoon) powdered gelatin
- ¼ cup (60 ml) cold water
- ½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 4 large eggs, separated
- ⅓ cup (80 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- ½ cup (100 grams) super fine sugar
- Freshly whipped cream and fresh, ripe strawberries
- Pre-bake the Sweet Pastry Crust ahead of time to allow it to cool completely: Line your pie plate with the pastry and trim. Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes until chilled while you preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Lightly prick the shell with a fork. Place a large piece of parchment (ovenproof) paper in the shell and fill with pastry weights or dried beans. Bake in the preheated oven for 8 minutes and then carefully remove the pie plate to a cooling rack, gently lift out the parchment with the beans (reserve the beans for another use, discard the parchment), and return the pie shell to the oven for an additional 8 - 10 minutes or so or until baked and golden. Remove from the oven (you can turn off the oven as you won’t be using it again) and allow the pastry shell to cool completely before filling.
- Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and allow to soften for 5 minutes, gently pushing the gelatin below the surface of the liquid.
- Meanwhile, separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a large heatproof mixing bowl; place the whites in a perfectly clean bowl (preferably plastic or metal) with a drop or 2 of lemon juice and a small pinch of salt.
- Whisk the granulated sugar and the salt into the yolks and place the bowl over a pan of gently simmering (not boiling) water. Continue to whisk until just slightly thickened and pour in the lemon juice. Continue whisking for about 6 to 8 minutes or until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a custard.
- Add the softened gelatin and the lemon zest and whisk to blend then continue to whisk over the hot water for an additional 3 minutes or so until the gelatin melts.
- Remove the bowl from the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, whisking occasionally, and then place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill until cold and thickened, 15 to 20 minutes.
- Remove the bowl from the refrigerator.
- Using very clean beaters, beat the whites until opaque and just beginning to hold soft peaks. Gradually add the superfine sugar as you beat the whites on high speed until very glossy and a very thick, stiff meringue.
- Quickly beat the lemon custard to loosen and then, using a rubber or silicone spatula, fold the meringue into the custard in thirds or fourths until perfectly blended and very thick, creamy and luxurious.
- Mound the lemon chiffon cream into the prepared pie shell and, with a very light hand, spread the cream evenly in the shell.
- Place the pie in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight to set.