(This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
By Marina Brancely
Pastry chefs are always digging around and searching for new ideas, often seeking to stay on the cutting edge and current with what is trendy, and at other times taking comfort in revitalizing old-standbys that never get tired. That curious and inquisitive nature leads some of us to revisit the past or delve into other cultures for inspiration. Recently, I became interested in (read: obsessed with) a beloved Russian pastry known to me as ‘Lemon Pizza’.
Lemon Pizza is a pastry with several identities. I was introduced to it by my friend and long-time companion Alex, who was raised in the Northern Caucasus of Russia. Lemon Pizza became Alex’s nickname for a pastry he fondly remembers from his childhood. After reviewing several Russian cookbooks, I found it commonly goes by lemon torte, pie or cake. This lemon pastry is widely beloved in Russia and the Caucasus region, as well as in some of the Balkan countries surrounding the Black Sea.
The recipe included herein is a family recipe from Alex (with a few tweaks). What intrigues me, and what is unique about the pastry is the use of whole, ground lemons in the filling, made by combining finely grated or pureed lemons with sugar which is then encased in a soft biscuit-type dough made with buttermilk. The filling is not custard-based or curd-based, but more akin to marmalade, however not cooked prior to filling the pastry. Once baked, the sweet lemony marmalade interior contrasts nicely with a moist biscuity crust—think—warm buttermilk biscuits spread with butter and a tart jam, soft on the inside with a deep golden exterior crust.
Thinking back through my twenty-plus years as a pastry chef spanning from Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts and New York, and many encounters with lemon desserts, I don’t recall any that were not custard or curd based. Even the classic Shaker pie, which has whole, sliced lemons and sugar as the main component of the filling, includes eggs. Early on in my career while working at Greystone (The Culinary Institute of America’s West Coast campus in Napa Valley), my roommate, the late Catherine Brandel and former Chez Panisse chef, gave me a recipe for an orange cake that included whole finely grated oranges like the lemons in the lemon pizza. At the time I didn’t give the recipe much attention because I thought the cake would be too bitter. Fast-forward 20 years and to my first taste of Lemon Pizza, I found a new appreciation for utilizing whole citrus fruits in pastry applications. Perhaps as we get older the sensitivity of our taste buds changes – this may account for my newfound pleasure in bittersweet lemons.
To learn more about this beloved Russian pastry I consulted several cookbooks on Russian and Georgian cuisine, as well as food blogs where I discovered it is a pastry that can take-on several forms, often differing only in the makeup of the crust. Through my research I recognized the terms ‘cake’ and ‘pie’ don’t carry the same meaning in Russian pastries as they do in American pastries. Greek pastries too, I noticed, use the terms loosely—I learned this having spent the last three summers leading study tours from the island of Crete to Athens and Sparta, and up to Thessaloniki in northern Greece. I’ve come to understand that a cake or pie designation in foreign recipes usually refers to the shape more than the composition of the dessert.
Many of us are familiar with Darra Goldstein as the founder and former editor-in-chief of the culinary journal Gastronomica, but you may not know she is also one of the foremost scholars in Russian studies, and author of several books featuring Russian and Georgian cuisine. In her book A Taste of Russia (1991), Goldstein provides a recipe for Yeasted-Raised Lemon Cake, and the Russian subtitle underneath reads ‘Limonnyi Tort’. The lemon cake in Goldstein’s book is very similar to Lemon Pizza, except the crust might best be described as pâte brisée with yeast, including ground lemons and sugar for the filling. I asked Goldstein about the lemon cake, and she introduced me to another Russian baking book, Homemade Cakes, Pastries, Cookies, Gingerbread, Pies (1968) by Robert Kengis. Only available in Russian, Alex found a 1982 edition that included a lemon torte where the filling consisted of the same ingredients of whole pureed lemons with sugar.
Like Goldstein, Lynn Visson is also a Russian-American scholar, and has collected cherished recipes from family and friends which she presents in The Russian Heritage Cookbook (1998). Visson grew up in New York, and has fond memories of sitting around the table discussing politics and enjoying Russian food and culture with family and friends. “To them gastronomy was a creative discipline in no way inferior to painting, music or ballet,” she writes. In the dessert section, Visson includes a recipe for Open Lemon Cake, and the Russian subtitle underneath reads, ‘Koreneva’. The recipe calls for using a yeasted-sweet roll dough for the crust (such as one used for cinnamon rolls), filled with two grated lemons combined with nearly two cups of sugar. As the recipe title notes, it’s an open-faced pastry, like a pizza.
A more recently published collection of recipes from the Caucasus region, Kaukasis, written by Olia Hercules, includes a recipe called ‘Valya’s Lemon Tart’. Hercules obtained it from a friend who owns a pastry shop, noting the recipe originally came from a Russian woman named Valentina—hence the nickname Valya featured in the recipe title. In analyzing the recipe composition of Valya’s Lemon Tart compared to the preceding ones from Goldstein and Visson, the fillings are almost identical, the tart is also open-faced, but uses a crust similar to pie or tart dough. Herucles was born in Ukraine and once worked for Yotam Ottolenghi, a highly regarded restaurateur based in London specializing in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. She now is writing her third book, and like the others, it is based in the cuisines of Ukraine and the Caucasus.
Several food blogs have also featured this obscure Russian lemon pastry (obscure to Americans, that is, not Russians). Tasty Arbuz by Lola Elise refers to it as Lemon Pie. Scanning the comment section of the blog, there were several accolades from Russians who had been searching years for this recipe and were delighted to have finally found it. In addition to Elise’s food blog, I found three other blogs by food enthusiasts that feature a version of the Lemon Pizza as lemon pie or lemon cake. Clearly this lemon pastry has a devoted following.
Still wondering about the evolution of the pastry, I reached for an older Russian cookbook from the 1800s, Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ a Gift to Young Housewives translated by Joyce Toomre (1992). It showed no evidence of ground-up lemons used as a filling in pastries, however there was a recipe for Lemon Torte, and it appears the lemons were used whole—once boiled, they were deseeded and beaten until smooth, at which point sugar and eggs were then incorporated to make thin layers of sponge cake.
Lastly, since Italy is so well known for the production of lemons in Sicily and the Amalfi Coast, I wanted to see if there was any indication of this Russian pastry stemming from their Italian neighbors, searching contemporary Italian cookbooks didn’t turn up anything. In my home library I happen to have a copy of The Art of Eating Well, by Pellegrino Artusi, 1820-1911 (translated by Kyle M. Phillips III in 1996), which documents classic Italian recipes treasured by many Italian homes over a hundred years. Since lemons were cultivated widely in Italy, I was hoping to find a recipe that might resemble Lemon Pizza. Artusi did include a recipe that used whole lemons, but the lemons were pressed into a paste and then incorporated into lemon pudding.
So there you have it, a short journey into the mysterious Russian Lemon Pizza—a pastry which seems as though it has been kept concealed in family recipes from a very specific region of the world. I’m sure there are many other avenues to investigate, as well as so much more to say about lemons in general, but that’s an adventure for another time. Just a few notes on the recipe that follows: strict orders come from Alex’s aunt warning not to reduce the sugar in the filling – but I know how pastry chefs operate, we often can’t resist alteration or experimentation. Since I’ve been there already, here’s what I found: If the ratio in the filling is reduced to 1:1 (lemon/sugar), there will be some residual moisture from the lemons, the flavor profile will be quite bright and the marmalade texture not altered too much. Meyer lemons also work nicely. Cooking the filling ahead of time will work, but I prefer using it raw inside the pastry, as it seems to perfume the entire torte as it bakes inside. Enjoy this pastry at room temperature or slightly warm with fresh fruit and a cup of tea, just as the Russians do.
Russian Lemon Pizza
Yield: one 8” torte
- 1 large egg
- 99 g buttermilk
- 113 g cake flour
- 14 g granulated sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 1/8 tsp baking soda
- 170 g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- Whisk together the egg and buttermilk; set aside.
- Combine the dry ingredients in food processor. Add the cold butter chunks and process until mixture resembles coarse meal and is powdery.
Empty into a large bowl and drizzle in buttermilk mixture a little at a time, while tossing and cutting in liquid with bowl scraper or pastry cutter until flour-butter mixture is fully hydrated.
Portion into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap and chill 1 to 2 hours, or overnight.
- 1 lemon
- 170 g granulated sugar
- Cut lemon into wedges, remove seeds and cut into 1” chunks. Puree chunks (peel included) in food processor until finely ground; combine with sugar and set aside.
- 28 g egg wash
- 42 g heavy cream
- 2 tsp granulated sugar
- Using the piece of dough from the refrigerator first, line a bottomless 8” x 1 ½” cake ring with the dough, saving the perimeter scraps in long strands. Using the piece of dough from the freezer, cut out the top layer with an 8” fluted tart pan, saving the perimeter scraps in long strands.
- Make a rope from the strands of dough: Assemble the strands in two sets that are approximately 12” in length, slicing them so that each is also similar in width. Twist each set to make two ropes of even thickness, rolling each to 12 ½” in length – these will be used inside the rim of the bottom crust.
- Egg wash inside rim of bottom crust, then place the ropes of dough on the egg wash to create a border on the inside of the cake ring to hold the filling in. Crimp the inside edge with a spoon or fork to seal the rope to the bottom crust.
Add the lemon filling, then place torte in the refrigerator while prepping the top crust.
Pull the bottom crust from the refrigerator, egg wash the rim of the bottom crust, then slide the top crust onto it. Seal top and bottom crusts by first lightly pressing the edges down with a spoon, then pinching together with a crimping tool or fork.
Marina Brancely, CEPC, is a Senior Instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI.