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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Williamsburg Lemon Pie

I've been trying to use up my basket of lemons so decided to visit a wonderful recipe from Colonial Williamsburg. This is a lemon pie (or lemon pye) that is based on a recipe from 1742 from a book titled The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentleman's Companion. The book was sold in Williamsburg during the time that people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others were frequent visitors to the capital of the colony.

The original recipe is rather interesting to note. It calls for 3 lemons, 3/4 pound of fine sugar, 12 egg yolks, 6 egg whites, and 3/4 pound of butter. That's a lot of eggs and butter for modern tastes. It also makes the original a very tricky recipe since the thickening of the filling is dependent on getting those eggs to bind the lemon pulp! Luckily, we have some modern conveniences and techniques that can help us out and cut down our work.

The updated version of this recipe from Williamsburg calls for cornstarch as the main binder for the filling. Cornstarch works fine, but I find that flour often gives a silkier texture. The Williamsburg copy also doesn't utilize gelatin to help set the filling. I find that adding gelatin to fruit pie fillings really makes a big difference. Often, even if you cook the filling to perfection you'll find that when you slice your pie the filling wants to run out of the crust. I love the look of a nice clean edge on a fruit pie slice. So, adding a bit of gelatin insures your filling won't decide to run all over the dessert plate.

When I bake this pie I reserve my egg whites and make a wash which I then brush over both the bottom of the pie to seal it nicely and prevent any soggy patches and also to brush over the top of the pie for a beautiful shiny crust. I also sprinkle the top with some sugar for some sparkle and shine. If you prefer you can cut slits in your top piece, but I like to cut out designs. In this example I used a little round fondant cutter to make circles. But you can use any small cookie cutter or pie crust cutter.

The taste of this pie is wonderful. You get lots of lemon flavor but without that eye watering tartness so often associated with lemon pies. The brown sugar gives this some real flavor depth and while sweetening the pie, it doesn't cause sugar shock like the loads of white sugar used in most lemon pies. This is a real taste treat and a great update of a pie that may well have graced Jefferson's table in the 18th Century.

Recipe: Williamsburg Lemon Pye

Summary: An updated version of a 1742 recipe for lemon pie from Colonial Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop.


  • 2 9-inch pie crusts
  • 3 medium lemons
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 7 tbs. flour (or cornstarch)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten (reserve whites)
  • 2 tbs. butter, room temperature
  • 1 packet gelatin


The filling should be thick, resembling applesauce before
removing from the heat and adding butter.
  1. Zest the lemons and then peel, making sure to remove as much of the white pith as possible. Reserve the zest. Slice the lemons and remove the seeds. Process the lemon slices in a food processor or blender for 1 minute. Place the lemon pulp and zest in a medium saucepan with 1 1/2 cups water. Cook on medium low heat until zest is tender - about 8 to 10 minutes. Add 1 cup sugar and continue cooking until sugar is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, mix together the brown sugar, flour, and salt in a medium bowl. Add the egg yolks and mix well until a thick paste forms. Gradually add a little of the hot lemon/sugar mixture to the paste until it stirs easily. Pour the paste into the saucepan with the lemon mixture and cook on medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Add the packet of gelatin to hot mixture and continue to cook until mixture is opaque and thick - about the consistency of applesauce (about 15-25 minutes). Remove from heat and add the butter. Stir will until butter is melted and incorporated into mixture. Allow to cool until lukewarm.
  3. Preheat oven to 400°. Line a 9-inch pie dish with a pie crust and brush lightly with reserved egg whites mixed with a tablespoon of water. Pour warm lemon mixture into prepared crust. Take second crust and place on top of pie. Crimp and seal edges and flute. Cut slits in top of pie or cut out designs in crust before placing on pie. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with granulated sugar for a sparkling top.
  4. Bake at 400° for 40-50 or until crust is golden brown. After first 15 minutes place tinfoil around edges of pie to prevent edges from over browning.
  5. Allow pie to cool completely on wire rack before cutting.

Quick Notes

The addition of the gelatin in the pie helps insure the filling remains firm when the pie is sliced.

Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: 50 min
Total time: 1 hour 20 min
Number of servings (yield): 8
Meal type: dessert
Culinary tradition: USA (Traditional)
Copyright © Buck Bannister and Sugar Pies.
Recipe adapted by Buck Bannister.

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