IMG 2874 Edited Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

My friend Libby recently sent me an email to ask if I had ever made a gratin. Since I instantly thought of potatoes upon reading the word gratin, and Libby’s gratin was a lemon dessert, my answer was a definitive no. Libby described the Meyer Lemon Gratin she tried at Cameron’s American Bistro as one of the best things she’d ever tasted. Not just one of the best desserts she’d ever tasted, but one of the best foods she’d ever tasted.  I was sold.

Though I knew I would try to make the lemon gratin because 1) Libby asked, 2) Libby said it was delicious, and 3)  it gave me a reason to buy ramekins, I put it off in favor of other things. I started to plan on making the gratin in June to celebrate my first year of blogging.  Then I read a blog post Julie at Willow Bird Baking wrote about Cooking Hard Stuff. I thought it was timely in regards to the gratin, so I bought ramekins, two pounds (two pounds!) of cream cheese, and started cooking.

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In her blog post, Julie stressed the need to read a recipe in full before beginning, and I agree whole-heartedly. We sometimes unnecessarily defeat ourselves when, mid-recipe, we realize a trip to the grocery store is needed for one crucial ingredient. Or, again mid-recipe, we encounter an unfamiliar technique or realize more time than allotted will be needed for rising or chilling or baking before any eating will occur. When cooking hard stuff, one may find the recipes are not as hard as much as they are unfamiliar.

For example, this gratin recipe requires 3 1/2 hours of bake time followed by the need to cool overnight. Throw in the need to whip and mix three separate ingredients – heavy cream, egg whites, and the cream cheese mixture – and you could find yourself frustrated if you did not plan how to use your mixer in advance. Then realize the mixture bakes in ramekins placed in a water bath, and you might be ready to throw in the towel. Oh, and did I mention the ingredient list calls for two pounds (!) of cream cheese? Reading the recipe in advance removes the elements of surprise as they relate to time, ingredients, and techniques so cooking and baking may commence accordingly.

IMG 2876 Edited Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

I wrote the recipe below to reflect how I made my lemon gratins. As you read through it before you begin, you may decide to do things in a different order, like whip the egg whites and whipped cream before beating the cream cheese. Or maybe you may want to place your ramekins in the pan before you fill them with the gratin mixture. Do whatever works for you.

The original recipe states, “The hardest part of this recipe is figuring out exactly how long it should cook. When done correctly, the top should just be firm to the touch, not be browned or cracked.” Well, so much for that. After about an hour and a half, the tops of my gratins were slightly browned. I do a great deal of guessing with my oven, but I did not expect browned tops with two hours of bake time left. I elected to carry on, and the condition of the gratins worsened only minimally.

IMG 2856 Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

Correctly baked gratins should not have browned or cracked tops. Oops!

Not only did my gratins look fairly ugly just out of the oven, I didn’t do them any favors by turning them out of the ramekins. I prettied them up the best I could with a whipped cream garnish and a bed of citrus slices. Next time, I might just serve the gratin in the ramekins.

Though my gratins turned out much less lovely than I had hoped, and I was unable to find Meyer Lemons at my local stores, they still tasted delightful. Sweet, lemony, and smooth – a taste that deepened and improved as the week wore on. I used regular lemons, though Meyer lemons are sweeter and more flavorful. I simply didn’t want to use their lack of availability as an excuse not to cook some hard stuff.

IMG 2866 Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

Remind me why I removed the gratins from their happy ramekin homes.

By now some of you may be wondering about the difference between a gratin and a cheesecake. I certainly was after baking two pounds of cream cheese flavored with citrus and sweetened with sugar. The closest I could come to an answer was the English word gratin translates to “grate” in French, and a gratin is a dish cooked to a brown crust. Cast in that light, my golden brown gratin crusts don’t seem so bad.

Someday, when I own an oven with a properly calibrated temperature (I’m pretty sure mine is off) and a door with a window (so I can see my baked foods without opening the door and disturbing them), I will try this again.

Were the gratins pretty? No. Were the gratins tasty?  Yes.  Are gratins worth trying on your own? Definitely!

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Lemon Gratin
Recipe type: Dessert
  • 2 pounds cream cheese
  • 1¾ cup sugar
  • 2 (Meyer) lemons, juiced and zested
  • ½ orange, juiced and zested
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 egg whites
  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons sour cream
  • if desired, additional whipped cream for garnish
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the cream cheese, sugar, and the lemon and orange zests.
  2. Beat until very smooth, about four to five minutes.
  3. Add the lemon and orange juices, egg yolks, and the vanilla to the cream cheese mixture.
  4. Continue to beat until well blended.
  5. While the mixtures combine, place the heavy cream in a medium bowl and use a hand mixer to beat until the cream is whipped.
  6. Then place the egg whites in a separate medium bowl and use the hand mixer to beat to stiff peaks.
  7. Fold the whipped cream and the sour cream into the smooth cream cheese mixture.
  8. Then fold in whipped egg whites and gently mix until blended.
  9. Prepare six, 10 ounce ramekins by coating the insides with vegetable spray then coating with sugar.
  10. Ladle about 8 ounces of the mixture into each sugared ramekin and smooth the surface.
  11. Place the ramekins in a 9 x 13 pan and fill the pan with ½ inch of hot water.
  12. Bake in the oven at 300 degrees for 30 minutes.
  13. After 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 225 degrees and continue to bake for 3½ hours.
  14. When done, the gratins should be slightly firm to the touch, but not browned or cracked.
  15. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and allow to cool overnight.
  16. To serve, run a spatula or knife along the inside edge of each ramekin to separate the mixture from the side.
  17. Place upside down on serving plate and garnish as desired.

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