It takes three days for Cédric Grolet to make Le Citron, his trademark dessert that looks just like a real lemon. But on Instagram, the French pastry chef’s eight million followers can watch him whip up the trompe l’oeil edible masterpiece in less than a minute.
As pastry sous-chef at Le Meurice, in Paris, Grolet became known for defying expectations of what a dessert could be, whether a Rubik’s Cube made of tiny cakes or a lifelike apple filled with apple-juice jelly. Grolet’s fruit creations inspired his first cookbook, Fruit: The Art of Pastry, and today he operates three pâtisseries, two in Paris and one in London, with a fourth, in Singapore, opening this fall.
“I thought it was a pity that, for all these years, cakes have been geometrically shaped in circles, triangles, squares, or rectangles,” Grolet tells me. “Nature offers us things that are good but above all physically beautiful, so I decided to combine taste with physicality.”
Now desserts inspired by Grolet’s Citron are popping up on menus all over the world. From South Carolina to Amalfi, it’s the summer of the lemon-shaped dessert, and everyone wants a bite.
At Sorelle, in Charleston, South Carolina, a lemon-jam center enrobed in white-chocolate mousse gets dipped in cocoa butter and then airbrushed with natural yellow food coloring. At Bad Roman, in New York, lemon-shaped lemon cheesecakes are frozen, coated in a yellow “magic” shell, and served on top of crumbled graham streusel. Diners at La Belle Helene, in Charlotte, North Carolina, crack open the hard shell of a lemon to find basil-lemon confit and turmeric-lemongrass mousse oozing out like an egg yolk.
“I’m seeing more and more trompe l’oeil desserts,” Grolet says. “Never in a million years would I have thought that other pastry chefs would make them, too.”
Four years ago, Adam Sobel, the chef and partner at Sorelle, was inspired by a lemon-shaped dessert he’d had at the Hotel Santa Caterina, in Amalfi. “It was a single lemon on a small plate, and you took your spoon and cracked it,” Sobel says. Giuseppe Stanzione, the hotel’s executive chef, modernized the traditional Italian delizia al limone (a sponge cake filled with a lemon cream) by putting lemon mousse and lemon compote inside a chocolate, lemon-shaped shell. “It was clean and bright and not overly heavy,” Sobel says.
Sobel created his own lemon dessert in Charleston, but now he questions whether it “might be a little bit overdone.” He was thinking about removing his from the Sorelle menu, but has settled on tweaking the presentation, maybe by adding a lemon sorbet.
At La Belle Helene, executive pastry chef Michaela Moehring faces a similar challenge. “I did myself dirty,” she says, noting that the restaurant sells an average of 110 lemon desserts per week. “At this point, it would be a mistake to remove it.”
In one month alone, Bad Roman sold 2,400 orders of lemon-shaped cheesecakes, a response that pastry chef Lucy Blanche calls “insane,” adding, “We’ve never seen anything like that.” Blanche has no immediate plans to change the dish or take it off of the menu.
Grolet doesn’t always have Le Citron available; his pâtisseries’ offerings tend to be seasonal. Yet, at the chef’s London location, in the Berkeley Hotel, executive sous-chef Antoine Llewelyn will launch his own version of Le Citron on September 20, as part of the pâtisserie’s new autumn-winter menu. Llewelyn’s creation will look like the original on the outside, but instead of being filled with lemon gel, chopped mint, and yuzu ganache, the cheesecake-inspired inside will have cream-cheese ganache, a layer of biscuit, and lemon curd.
The lemon dessert seems here to stay.
Nina Friend is a New York–based writer and editor who covers food, drink, and lifestyle