by Amy Bowers
On a free afternoon, with the windows open and an early fall breeze moving through the kitchen, I gather some eggs, milk, and a few lemons. I am attempting to make a pie I have never tasted and until a few days ago even heard of. My aunt told me about my grandma’s Lemon Sponge Pie and the domestic lore of a transformational layering that occurs during the bake; I was obsessed.
During the pandemic, like many, I spent more time at home and more time cooking for my three teenagers. We made pretzels, plum cakes, chocolate cakes, Jello poke cakes, sourdough bread, torn Bavarian pancakes, donuts, and banana bread. When we first started staying home, it was still cool outside, so these foods wrapped us in comfort when the world seemed to be unsafe and unknowable.
As we moved into summer, I made batches of mustardy vinaigrette, gallons of gazpacho, black bean salad, fire cider for fall, popsicles, and started working my way through family recipes including my Grandma Bowers’ pies. My grandma died sixteen years ago, and part of her legacy was the simple but perfect pies she made for Sunday dinner and special occasions.
We started with butterscotch; a sticky, gooey, and very sweet pie–my dad’s childhood favorite. No matter that my parents live in Florida and I in Connecticut. The pie and attendant phone calls made us feel closer, and the flavor took me back to my grandma’s tiny midwestern kitchen. I was unable to get the meringue as high as hers, but somehow conjured a few of those brown sugar droplets that form on the peaks and roll down into the valleys and feel like a time-traveling elixir.
Next, we made chocolate cream pie that tastes like 1980’s pudding and Coolwhip. Richly decadent and nostalgic, I wanted to climb into that pie and think about the stuff of my childhood: newly emergent microwave cooking, grape pop at the beach, long landline calls while playing with the corkscrew chord, sandspurs, and the Solid Gold Dancers.
But it was the Lemon Sponge Pie that woke me from this confusingly unsteady moment in history where everything changed daily yet progress and clarity stagnated. My aunt texted me that while my dad always requested butterscotch pie, her favorite was lemon sponge. She tried to describe it to me, but I was confused. It sounded like lemon meringue but easier. While baking, an alchemy of stiff egg whites and lemons created layers almost magically. Our world-weary worries could use some enchantment.
That fact that something sublime could be coaxed from humble ingredients in my grandma’s small eat-in kitchen was unsurprising. Every week, she made a Sunday scratch supper for six to twelve family members. She might have made many different things, but I remember roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans from her garden, ice tea with sprigs of spearmint, and pie. She had no gadgets to complicate her work and frequently used her thumb to stop the paring knife when she cut vegetables so she had a network of lines permanently rewriting her thumbprint. I don’t think they were scars from accidental slices; they were more like beautiful erosions from deep caregiving. She did not have a dishwasher or pantry, but she did have a tiny work table pushed up against the window where she made all her own clothes and quilts with precision and skill to give to family members and to donate to missions.
As I raised my own children, I often think of what she was able to produce with limited resources and an abundance of love and service. I strive to do the same but am frequently seduced by the sirens of exotic or high-end ingredients, new-fangled kitchen tools, and better appliances. In moments of maturity, I know that none of that is necessary. Basic tools, fresh food, and intent are all that are needed to nourish and protect my family.
The recipe from my grandma’s church cookbook is light on directions, but I jumped in not knowing exactly what the final product would look or taste like. I was groping around in the dark for an unarticulated comfort. If my dad and aunt ate this pie in the middle of the last century made by a woman who was born not too long after the turn of that century, then maybe threads of her strength and resilience could shore us up during this disconcerting time.
I cooked the flour and butter together, added milk, egg yolks and sugar, grated lemon peel, whipped egg whites and said a little incantation as I slid the flax colored custard into the oven. When the top cracked brown, I removed the pie and let it cool on the counter before moving it to the refrigerator to set. That evening, after dinner we cut into it and the spell was complete.
The layers had separated at some point into two, a creamy, bright custard that settled into the pie crust and a top layer that was a combination of meringue and angel food cake. We took small bites, rolled it in our mouths and tried to find words to describe the flavor and texture. The word flavor comes from a combination of the Latin word for odor, breathe, and wind and the Middle English word savor. As I closed my eyes, I recognized a flavor that I had never tasted but still sang to me like a breath from my unknown past and felt like home.
Lemon Sponge Pie
Unbaked pie crust (homemade or store bought)
Butter the size of an egg (about 3T)
1 ¼ cups sugar
4 eggs separated
3 Tbsp. flour
pinch salt (unless you are using salted butter, then no salt)
1 ¼ cup milk
2 Tbsp. lemon zest
⅓ cup lemon juice
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cream butter and sugar.
Beat egg yolks, flour, salt, milk, zest, and lemon juice into the creamed mixture. Set aside.
In a clean bowl, beat egg whites into a meringue, fold the meringue into the filling and pour into the unbaked pie shell.
Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 45 more minutes until the top is golden and a toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool on the counter for a bit and then move to the refrigerator and let set for a few hours.