Lemon pie is often considered a Southern confection, conjuring up images of plantation parties with lovely slices of the sky-high pie served on fancy china. Others may think of it as a Diner restaurant staple, a featured highlight in the revolving glass dessert case alongside other luscious treats such as cream puffs, éclairs and cheesecake.
What many folks don’t know is that lemon meringue pie is actually a Philadelphia invention born out of the Victorian-era, courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow, a 19th century pastry shop proprietress who ran America’s first cooking school.
This classic pie of contrasting sweet-tart layers evolved from one of Mrs. Goodfellow’s signature desserts, a rich lemon pudding. At some point she cleverly thought to top her famous pudding with fluffy meringue. Although there are recipes for decorating cakes, tarts, and custards with sweetened and flavored egg whites starting in the 1600s, adding meringue to a pudding (pie) doesn’t appear until the nineteenth century.
Since Mrs. Goodfellow’s lemon custard recipe calls for the yolks of ten eggs; rather than allowing the whites go to waste, she likely decided to resourcefully whip them with sugar to create a meringue for the top. Perhaps the success of this combination prompted her to accent her lemon pudding with the same topping, and voilà – lemon meringue pie was born!
Throughout the mid-19th century, domestic goddess Eliza Leslie (who had studied under Mrs. Goodfellow’s tutelage) began familiarizing Americans with the concept of meringue-topped puddings via her recipes. In her 1847 cookbook, The Lady’s Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families, she says: “Any very nice baked pudding will be improved by covering the surface with a meringue.”
By the 1860s, lemon meringue pie recipes began popping up in cookbooks nationwide, including Common Sense in The Household – A Manual of Practical Housewifery by Marion Harland and The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints by Sarah Annie Frost. Although sometimes called iced lemon pie, lemon cream pie, or lemon custard pie, they all featured a meringue topping. In fact, lemon custard pie was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln.
Other lemon pie iterations emerged where lemons were sliced like in an apple pie, and sometimes a top crust was added. One version that became a Southern specialty is lemon chess pie, kind of a fusion between pudding and cheesecake. But the most popular style eventually evolved into a pie of layers. The contrasting texture of a slightly crispy shell covering very sweet pillowy meringue balances the tart, thick, custardy lemon filling perfectly. The flaky pastry crust holds it all together.
The recipes in Anna Maxwell’s journal perfectly illustrate the developments and changes that were happening to lemon pie in the latter part of the 19th century. Her diary features four different lemon pie recipes – two with a meringue topping and two without – although all are labeled simply “Lemon Pie.”
I decided to try to replicate the two that included the meringue topping. Here’s the recipe for the first one:
LEMON PIE – Take one lemon, grate the rind, squeeze the juice and chop the pulp very fine; a teacupful of sugar; the yolks of two eggs; beat well together, and add one cup of sweet milk; bake immediately; beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, with two tablespoonfuls of sugar; spread on the pie when done, and put back in the oven to brown.
The first thing I noticed about this recipe is that it uses only two eggs, so I was a little skeptical that it would create the high layers we associate with lemon pie today. Also, it didn’t list any flour or cornstarch as a thickener, although I surmised this was the purpose of the egg yolks and lemon pulp. I followed the recipe directions, using a cup of sugar for the teacupful, and just regular milk for sweet milk (my research determined this is just a way to distinguish regular milk from sour milk, often used in baking for its acidic qualities).
Since the recipe does not call for cooking the mixture beforehand in order to develop a custardy texture, it was rather watery when I popped it in the oven. I had to bake it for almost an hour to get it to set, thus causing the crust to burn a little. (Eventually I placed some aluminum foil around the edges as a shield).
Once it cooled, the lemon layer solidified, it just wasn’t very high. I then made the meringue, but using just two egg whites didn’t yield a huge amount, so as a topping it was relatively thin, and not very attractive! However, it did taste good, and I even tried it out on some folks who are huge lemon meringue pie fans, and they thought it was fine. So, although it was okay, I think with a few tweaks it could work even better – maybe a couple more eggs and a tablespoon or so of flour or cornstarch to help firm up the lemon filling.
Some puddings and pies from this timeframe called for sponge cake as a thickener, so this is another option. In fact, one of the lemon pie recipes in Anna’s diary (without meringue) says to “stiffen with stale sponge cake.”
The other lemon pie recipe I tried was attributed to a “Mrs. McN.” It was originally “lemon pies,” with the “s” at the end of pie crossed out, so I guess at some point it was designed to make more than one (another common occurrence in the 19th century – many recipes were written to make more than one pie at a time). However, I found the ingredients were perfect for just one pie:
Lemon Pies – Grate the rinds of three lemons, and the juice of one. 8 tablespoons of sugar, the yolks of six eggs, 1 tablespoon of flour, 6 of sugar 1 cup of cream. Line the pans with crusts and pour in the mixture and bake. Take the six whites of the eggs and six tablespoons of sugar mixed well together and after the pies are baked spread it over them and return to the oven until brown.
This recipe turned out much better than the first. I think the inclusion of one tablespoon of flour helped. The lemon filling gelled nicely after baking at 350 for about a half hour. It was shiny and glossy – the consistency of rich custard. I followed the directions for making the meringue and put it back in the oven to brown. After about 10 minutes it had developed the characteristic toasted look I was seeking. Success!
My “taste testers” loved it – one comment was just that was a little thicker and more “custardy” than most lemon meringue pies today – not a bad thing, just different. I thought it had the perfect balance of sweet and tart, and definitely has a rich and decadent look and feel on the palate. I can easily see this version becoming my “go-to” lemon pie recipe, and look forward to making it again!