Two Lemon Pies, One Rattlesnake

It all started because I had a quart of buttermilk. I don’t even remember what I bought it for, though whatever the main recipe was, it was the second quart purchased for it, because I drank a lot of the first one. When I figured out there would be a lot of buttermilk left over after the recipe got made, I started imagining this lemon and buttermilk pie recipe I’d seen in one of my cookbooks.

That recipe might still be out there. Or I may have remembered it wrong. Or imagined it. But I didn’t find it this time. There was a buttermilk pie recipe in one of the cookbooks, but it had no lemon, and I also had a bag of sunny, bright yellow lemons that were encouraging each other to go bad. The thugs had to be removed and the rest needed to go somewhere good.

Flipping through Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts, 2011, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. I came across a Shaker Citrus Pie.  I’ve made probably half a dozen Shaker lemon pies since finding the recipe in 2013. That summer I wrote about the cookbook How to Build a Better Pie by Millicent Souris, 2012, Quarry Books, for edible Reno-Tahoe COOKS! It’s a bright, summery pie, very light, with a sweet filling and tart lemon topping.


The first time I made that version, I used the crust from the cookbook, which is step-by-step for anyone nervous about attempting pie crust, and quite good. But my go-to crust for the last 10 years of so is from Baking with Julia, by Dorrie Greenspan and Julia Child, 1996, William Morrow Cookbooks. When I bought Baking with Julia, I stopped using frozen or premade crusts.

With two variations of Shaker lemon pies in open cookbooks right in front of me, and a bunch of lemons and oranges looking beautiful in the sun on the kitchen counter, it was only common sense I was going to make both of them.

And only logical that life would intervene. Which is how I can say for certain that if, once the fruit is cut paper thin and macerating in the rather astounding amounts of sugar, there’s no time to make the pie, the whole thing can be left in the refrigerator for at least four or five days. Mine were on the counter and did just fine, though the day before I finally made the pies, the weather changed and the daily highs shot into the high 70s – refrigerating is probably always the best option.

The Martha Stewart pie is different because it uses a pate brisee for a crust, which is an all-butter crust that’s described as flaky and sturdy at the same time.  It mixes up easily, is light and a slightly sweeter, richer crust than the Shaker pie from the Build a Better Pie book. The pie itself has no brown sugar, unlike the straight lemon version, and uses oranges in addition to lemons, giving the pie a little more sweetness in the fruit. It also mixes some of the macerated citrus in the filling, not just layered on top. My fruit was already many days macerating by the time I read I should julienne some of the pieces, so I just cut them roughly and threw them into the mixer when doing up the eggs and lemon syrup for the filling.

I found the way the citrus pie came together easier than the Build a Better Pie lemon version, because there’s no liquid poured over the carefully arranged citrus fruit. When pouring the liquid over the lemon version, I’ve had the lemons float up and find their own places to sit, which I resent – I’d like them to stay where I put them, and not act like cats and head off wherever they please.

The Build version is tart and explodes with flavor. The egg and brown sugar mixture poured over the lemons is sweet and the lemons tart despite all the sugar, probably because they’re only lemons, no other citrus. I love lemons and my husband doesn’t, so I’ve given away half a dozen of these pies. This one I had a couple slices of and then pulled the fruit off the top.

The fruit layer of the Martha pie is light and both sweet and tart; the oranges make the flavor pop. The filling is very sweet. Once I pulled the citrus off the top and told myself to stop eating it, it was hard to really do so. The crust was shiny with juice that had baked in, like a glazed cookie, if there is such a thing (if there isn’t, there should be).


I made the pies Thursday May 4, a warm, sunny, still day in Reno’s North Valleys. I’d made both crusts the day before, then ran out of time and forgot to move them from the quick-chill in the freezer to the refrigerator, so I had to wait for them to thaw. Once they were in progress, I spent in between times reworking old short stories in the sunlight at the kitchen table.

This is where the rattlesnake comes in. When both pies were out and cooling, I wanted photographs of them on big rocks overlooking the dry lake and the valley, since the dry lake is full of flood waters and the valley gorgeous. I thought rocks, bright sun, beautiful vista, sunny pies would all complement each other.

Packing the pies into shopping bags because – strangely – I don’t have containers for toiling up steep, rocky foothills with pies in both hands (imagine!), I drove over to one of my favorite places to climb. Backpack on, phone strapped to arm, pies in each hand, I hiked over broken trails where flooding has etched deep channels in what used to be trail, and soft sand has silted into the new stream beds. The path itself is steep at the beginning, and made up of coarse, dry sand over hard dirt, which is slippery (since buying trail running shoes last year, I haven’t slipped once). When that trail makes a 90 degree turn and heads straight up the foothill, it becomes coarse dirt, hard dirt and rocks that have run off in storm after storm. It’s slippery and ankle-turning-dangerous. It’s also very, very steep.

It also doesn’t have big photogenic rocks on top. The rocks are another hike across more up and down and I didn’t have it in me to go the extra distance because by then, I’d met the snake.

When hiking to hike, I’m always looking around to see what animals might be nearby. Hikes are rated on the number of jackrabbits and cottontails, occasional coyotes, crows and magpies and little redheaded zombie birds I see. (Someday I’ll explain the zombie birds. Maybe.)

Today’s hike was awkward (pies), dusty (there were too many ATVs out, by which I mean two), ill-timed (I’d wanted to go early, and now at evening, the sun was angling into a glaring decline). I was watching the ground right in front of me, planning where to step. Usually I take the hard, rocky trail, moving back and forth over tire ruts to the least rocky sections as I go. But with the pies and the pace I was setting and it being my second hike of the day, I cut to the grassier section. The grass isn’t long and the tire ruts head over it, but it’s less rocky and easier.

And occupied. The rattlesnake was six to eight feet from me when I looked up farther than the next few steps and saw it. Diamond-shaped head, rattler design, coiled and shaking its tail at me and making no noise. Rattlesnakes shed their scales at some point, but I have no idea when. Maybe it hadn’t yet reached that level of annoyance, but it was shaking its tail and it was coiled and it was aggressively jutting its head in my direction.

I thought a bunch of stuff, all at exactly the same time:

Oh, bleep.

That’s a rattlesnake.

That’s way too close.


The non-thoughts, those that didn’t come in cartoon thought bubbles, included my distance from the snake (about six to eight feet, my shadow was nearly touching it and the sun was still high at 5:30), the snake’s probable length (about three feet, which is either as far as it can move in one strike or half what it can move in one strike, and I need to look that up again but am kind of past-tense afraid to).  I also thought that being on rocky, uncertain-footing ground, I couldn’t run or move fast, and that given the time of year, and my lack of knowledge about when snakes reproduce, I wasn’t going to blunder about without looking.

In other words, no leaping sideways and away.

It didn’t lunge. It didn’t strike. I obviously didn’t go any closer. I looked all around me, then gingerly moved to the left, back to the rocky path, where every single rock, stick and shadow now looked like a snake. I made a very large circle around it –

And then stopped to take pictures. I don’t know why. Except that I thought I was far enough away and I was kind of fascinated.

And probably kind of an idiot.

And then I went on to the top of the hill. Where my rocks weren’t.

My rocks weren’t where I left them. This happens to me a lot with anything even remotely geographical. By the time I saw they were another down and up, I gave up. The pies were heavy carried in bags, and the snake encounter left me shaking with adrenaline. I took a few photos from the top of the hill, and then made my very cautious, jumpy way back down, looking for the snake and never seeing it again, which was far less comforting than might be supposed.

This will be my fifth summer tramping about in the hills, and my second rattler encounter. Last year I passed a section in the same path, much farther down, and heard the unmistakable susurrus coming from a sagebrush. I’d heard rattles and dry rasps before and wondered, but the real thing strikes an atavistic response – there is no doubt what you’re hearing. I’ll never again wonder if a jackrabbit preparing to flee or a bunch of quail wanting me to go away are actually a snake. Snakes are snakes. The hackles on the back of my neck know the difference.

Theoretically if you don’t bother them they won’t go out of their way to bother you, which is good, but not all that reassuring. Rattlesnakes are aggressive.

And while I came out of the experience completely unscathed, I note this morning I’m letting the sun come up without my being out there running or hiking. It’s going to take a day or two, and some gratitude that this experience wasn’t any more up close and personal.

As for the pies, there’s only two of us in this household and I’m the only one who likes lemon. They’re delicate pies and ephemeral and I’m not going anywhere today, so no chance to give one away. Instead, I’m pulling the toppings off both and freezing them until I can figure out a good cookie recipe to chop them into.

Hopefully on that day it will be two batches of cookies, no snakes.


These are not my rocks. These are miniature rocks.





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