Tonight we bring you the lemon sponge pie, a delicious, odd, and mostly-forgotten pie that separates into layers as it bakes — one custardy, one cakey — and makes lemon meringue weep. (Which it often does, in any case.)
The lemon sponge pie is simply a lemon custard pie with separately beaten egg whites, and I think it began as an attempt to lighten lemon custard pie — an attempt that failed, but produced something entirely different. When you fold beaten egg whites into cake batter, the batter is thick enough to hold the egg whites in place, but custard filling is thin enough that in the oven, the egg whites separate out and float to the top before they set. They bring some of the custard filling with them, though, so that the top layer is essentially a very light lemon sponge cake, which floats over a soft lemon custard. It’s a neat effect, but one I doubt was predicted by the first woman to bake it.
Who was the first woman to bake it, I don’t know. My own recipe is adapted from one I found in a charity cookbook I inherited from my grandmother; it was only after baking it a couple of times and tweaking it that I noticed the author’s name — Mrs. Maurice Mertz, my great-aunt Anna. There were two or three recipes for lemon sponge pie in that book, but that was the first I’d heard of it.
The earliest recipes I can find for lemon sponge pie are from charity cookbooks published in 1907 and 1908 in Maine and Massachusetts, and they’re nearly identical to mine. In 1912 it appeared in the “Seasonable Recipes” column of the Boston Cooking School Magazine, and after that it made the rounds of national magazines, charity cookbooks, and published cookbooks.
That’s about the time I’d expect it to appear, because beginning around 1880 there was an absolute craze for beating egg whites. One reason is that the Dover eggbeater, the hand-cranked one with the gears and the twin interlocking beaters, had become available, and now beating eggs was far, far easier. (Earlier generations had used the palms of their hands to beat eggs. By 1830 or so birch rods were the hot new kitchen tool. So you can see how the Dover would have been appreciated.) Another reason is that domestic scientists were busy trying to convince everyone that cookery was every bit as important and serious and complicated as men’s work, so important that it required special instruction and industrial precision and every scrap of difficult technique they could possibly work into it. And there are other reasons of culture and fashion, but I won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say that by 1895, the unseparated egg was the mark of a woman barely qualified to keep house; even a “plain omelet” required separately beaten egg whites. So it makes perfect sense that right about that time, somebody decided to lighten her lemon custard pie by whipping up the egg whites.
Now, though, lemon sponge pie is widely attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch (or even to the Amish, which is absurd — gratuitously beating egg whites into things is really not their thing). In 1950 Frederic Klees mentioned it by name in his The Pennsylvania Dutch as one of the quintessential pies of Berks County; the Pennsylvania Folklife Society claimed it as Dutch in 1958; and my charity cookbook from Reading, published in the 1960s, includes two recipes for lemon sponge pie. And the only place I’ve ever seen it on a menu — and I always check out the pies on the menu — was in a diner in Mount Joy, a little northwest of Lancaster, in 1998. Maybe it originated among the Dutch, but it could have come from any cooking school instructor or progressive housewife in the northeastern U.S, really, any time after 1890. I suspect that it hung on in that part of Pennsylvania because pie baking, generally, hung on there longer than most places, and like a lot of other bits of Americana it’s been co-opted by the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Tourist-Industrial Complex.
I can’t claim lemon sponge pie for my people, then, but I can claim this lemon sponge pie for my kin. The only change I’ve made to Aunt Anna’s recipe was to add a second lemon and adjust the temperature. A traditional family recipe, after all, is simply one for which the magazine clipping was lost before you were born.
Note: If you want to see some early recipes for lemon sponge pie, visit my historical recipes database and search for it by name. I’m still working on the design, but this is where I keep most of the recipes I find in my research, and you’re free to browse around.
Another note: Sorry I don’t have a photo. It’s not a visually arresting pie, and I don’t have the photo skills to make it look good, and my wife was busy, and… well, I was hungry. It’s pie, you know? You eat it. Use your imagination, or, better yet, bake your own.
Recipe: Lemon Sponge Pie
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 eggs, separated
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- zest and juice of 2 lemons
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- prepared pastry shell
Cream together the butter, sugar, and egg yolks until light and fluffy. Stir in the salt, then the flour, lemon juice, lemon zest, and lastly the milk. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, and fold them into the custard mixture.
Pour into the prepared pastry shell and bake at 400°F for about 10 minutes, until the top begins to brown, then reduce the temperature to 350°F and bake another 25 to 30 minutes until the custard is barely set. (It will still jiggle a bit, but it will jiggle the same in the center as it does at the edges.) If your oven runs hot or if it’s a convection oven, start it at 375 instead of 400. Cool completely before serving.