Friday, December 17, 2010

Perfected: Lemon Custard Cookies

I'm going to just say it: I make the best lemon custard cookies.  Over the many years that I've been baking them, I've honed a recipe that is simple on the surface yet the devil is in the details. 

My Thanksgiving batch with a Shawnee vase from my collection.
I've become a lemon custard cookie snob.  I can eyeball a batch made by others from ten paces and determine with pretty good accuracy whether they're good or not. Pale yellow custard?  Not tart enough.  Runny custard?  Underdone. Fluffy custard or gummy custard?  I have no idea what causes that but it's just wrong.  Crumbly, thick crust?  Underdone or not packed well into the pan or... gasp... I don't even want to know if you didn't use real butter.

The perfect lemon custard cookie has a tart, smooth lemon pie layer that's gelled but not gummy atop a buttery, crisp yet tender shortbread crust. When you bite into it, your lips slightly pucker like at the beginning of a kiss. The shortbread crumbles and melts and you feel a memory of tartness at the back of your throat. There is always a moment of silence. 

Notes before proceeding: Do not be afraid of the lemon!  On the other hand, don't tip over into sour.  You need to find the delicate balance between lemon and sugar.  And only use fresh lemon juice.  Banish that bottled Real Lemon!  It tastes metallic. Go no further if you're even thinking about using it. 

Leery of tasting the raw custard for tartness?  I suppose you could go on faith, but I've been eating raw batter since I was a kid.

Ready?  Here we go.


Pre-heat oven to 350

For crust:

1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cubes unsalted cold butter

Put powdered sugar and flour into a medium bowl.  Cut butter into the bowl.  Blend together with a pastry blender, fork, or fingers (my favorite) until evenly crumbly. Pat firmly and evenly into a 9" x 12" pan.  Bake 10 to 15 minutes until slightly brown on bottom and sides and top has brown patches and looks solid--not doughy.  Watch as it can burn quickly.  Be careful not to under cook the crust as it won't bake much more when it's filled and will be too crumbly if it's underdone. Take out pan and set on a rack.

For filling:

Freshly squeeze lemons until you get about 7 to 8 tablespoons of juice (about 3 or 4 medium lemons).
Strain the juice through a sieve to remove seeds and pulp.
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour

Note on the sugar: you may be tempted to cut the quantity. It is a lot of sugar, but when you cut it (once I cut it to 1 cup), the custard won't have the right consistency.

In a medium bowl, mix together by hand the eggs, sugar, and flour.  Add about 6 tablespoons of lemon juice then taste for tartness. The tartness of lemons can vary. Add more lemon until you achieve the tartness you like, but be bold! Batter should be a little more tart than you want in the finished cookie because a bit of tartness is lost in cooking.

Pour filling on hot crust.  Bake 20 minutes longer or until custard is firm in the middle. Should have little bubbles here and there on the surface.

Sprinkle on powdered sugar while still hot.

Cool and cut into squares.

Serving tip: If you're bringing the cookies to share, cut and plate them ahead of time. They are sticky and hard to get out of the pan without breaking. If you bring the full pan, your masterpiece will be delicious but ugly from people jabbing and breaking the cookies.

Bon appetit!



  1. I thot I'd left a comment on this before.
    Anyhows, after this recipe I'm left with only 1 question: how are you with Lemon Meringue pie??

  2. Gad, Cafe... Was looking through old posts and just saw this comment. Sorry to have ignored you. I am not the best pie maker. I've made a lemon ice box pie that is great with a meringue topping and a graham cracker crust, but have never made a traditional lemon meringue pie.

  3. Looking forward to reading this one, Dianne. Congratulations.