Some recipes must be followed fastidiously, their success dependent upon an exact proportion of ingredients and a time-tested method. Sponge cakes or pie crusts come to mind.
Then there is Lemon Lush.
This layered dessert, by most accounts, originated and is beloved in Southern kitchens, which explains pecans in the crust. But it also takes to creative variations with a Dixie graciousness, which explains the several versions that don’t use pecans.
The combination of lemony and creamy flavors is classic, yinging and yanging on your tongue; it seems like something that Southern homemakers might have thrown together by instinct with fresh farm cheese and their go-to recipe for lemon pie.
But in printed recipes, Lemon Lush appears to have been birthed in the 1960s. A layer of cream cheese is beaten with white sugar. Another layer is instant lemon pudding mix. Another layer is frozen whipped topping, thawed and dolloped without distinction. Everything is layered in a 9- by 13-inch pan.
Such convenience likely boosted the dessert’s popularity, and bakers started making variations: swapping in chocolate pudding mix, folding whipped topping into the cream cheese, or making the crust with crushed graham crackers.
Today, more bakers seem willing to bypass convenience foods for homemade, so we had no hesitation about revising this recipe using from-scratch ingredients. We baked a nutty pecan crunch layer that subs in healthier oats for flour or crackers. We made a favorite lemon pie filling recipe instead of using instant pudding.
Finally, we whipped cream cheese with a can of sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice, a staple of unbaked cheesecakes, and used light cream cheese, to boot, for an even more ethereal layer.
(It’s possible to make homemade sweetened condensed milk, but it takes about two hours of simmering milk and sugar. We have our limits.)
Yet there was one more hurdle. Many photos of Lemon Lush posted on Pinterest and personal blogs are — how can we say it? — a mess, an injustice to the luscious flavors within.
The reason is understandable: Slicing squares of dessert through layers of whipped cream, lemon and cream cheese often results in smeared edges. (Unless you’re willing to sculpt the sides with a hot knife before serving.)
Making parfaits in tall glasses proved the solution, preserving the layers right up until a spoon dives in. Champagne flutes or white wine goblets are especially attractive, but you can use whatever strikes your fancy, from martini glasses to juice tumblers. For a spring or Easter meal, it’s a truly grand finale.
Throughout all the variations, one thing has remained constant: With its tart and creamy flavors, and the contrast of crunchy pecans, Lemon Lush is the right name for this dessert.