The all-American history of lemon meringue pie

Lifestyle

Lemon meringue pie is an American innovation, one that’s more than 200 years old. Although this long-time diner staple, lemony custard piled high with fluffy meringue, has the look of something that might have emerged in the Pillsbury Bake-Off in the mid-20th century, its roots go much deeper than that.

And to give it an even stronger “stars and stripes” connection, those roots took hold in Philadelphia, only a few blocks from Independence Hall, where the United States itself was born.

In the early 1800s, when Philadelphia was known as the “Athens of America,” it was the happening spot in the early republic. As the site where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written, it attracted the great political minds of the day.

Meanwhile, its robust international shipping port made it the home of wealthy merchants and financiers. This vibrant atmosphere sparked sophistication and innovation in science, business, the arts and, well…food.

Lemons are an essential ingredient to lemon meringue pieLemons are an essential ingredient to lemon meringue pie — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne

One such innovator was Elizabeth Goodfellow. According to noted food historian William Woys Weaver, Goodfellow was “one of the most creative forces in American cookery during the early nineteenth century.” An early female entrepreneur, she operated a pastry shop and cooking school for young ladies (America’s first).

Her shop was unique; unlike the many bakeries that supplied bread and daily baked goods, Mrs. Goodfellow’s pastry shop provided elegant cakes, pies and sweets for the fancy dinners taking place throughout the city.

She was renowned for many treats, including jumbles (an early version of sugar cookies) and queen’s cakes, individual spiced cakes flavored with brandy and madeira. But her most lasting legacy is the advent of lemon meringue pie.

Food historian Becky Diamond refers to Mrs. Goodfellow as “the mother of lemon meringue pie.” Diamond scoured multiple original manuscripts while researching her 2012 book, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School. Ironically, Mrs. Goodfellow never published her “receipts,” as they were then known, and as such there is no specific lemon meringue pie recipe attributed to her.

However, Diamond explains that many of Mrs. Goodfellow’s creations were documented by her former cooking school students, most notably Eliza Leslie. Leslie’s popular cookbooks from the first half of the 19th century repeatedly cite Goodfellow’s recipes and advice.

“Lemon Pudding” was considered one of Goodfellow’s signature creations; she is credited with several varieties, whether served alone, or in a pastry crust as a “pie.” Lemons were a delicacy in early 19th-century America, but readily available in a busy port such as Philadelphia.

Unlike puddings of today, these historic concoctions were rich endeavors, using extensive amounts of eggs and butter. One pudding recipe in particular uses nine (!) egg yolks, but no whites. No ingredient ever goes to waste in a chef’s kitchen, so those leftover egg whites had to go somewhere.

Lemon meringue pie, following Mrs. Goodfellow’s recipe — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne

Although the use of meringue had been documented in Europe as early as the 1600s, it was not linked with lemon pudding or custard until 19th-century Philadelphia. Eliza Leslie and others point to Mrs. Goodfellow using it frequently: she advocated it as a frosting on cakes, as well as topping for custards and pies.

Her legacy of covering lemon pie with meringue was established through Eliza Leslie’s cookbooks, as well as when her students, who hailed from throughout the growing nation, returned home and shared her recipes.

This legacy might have withered, but the popularity of the meringue-topped pie continued to grow following Mrs. Goodfellow’s death in 1851. For a few decades, lemon meringue pie enjoyed a few aliases, “iced lemon pie, lemon cream pie and lemon custard pie,” as it took its place among classic American desserts, but the confection was essentially the same.

Becky Diamond cites a powerful lemon meringue pie advocate in her book about Mrs. Goodfellow: “In fact, lemon custard pie as made by Nancy Breedlove was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Breedlove kept a hotel in Illinois in the mid-1800s, and Lincoln stayed there for weeks at a time when involved in court trials. He liked her lemon custard pie so much that he requested that she write out the recipe for him, and he told her years later that it was the favorite White House dessert.”

The pie was also a favorite of comedian Bob Hope, whose recipe for the sweet/tart treat was included in the 1992 USO [United Service Organizations] of Pioneer Valley’s Celebrity Cookbook, which includes a variation for a graham cracker crust along with the traditional pastry crust.

Country artist Trisha Yearwood included a graham cracker crust version in Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood, the 2013 book she wrote with her late mother Gwen and sister Beth. She admits her husband Garth [Brooks] “isn’t a big fan of meringue, so sometimes I double the filling for this pie and leave off the meringue.” Perhaps Garth Brooks is a devotee of Mrs. Goodfellow’s earlier, meringue-free pastries?

Lemon meringue pie is a unique slice of Americana. Unlike apple pie, which arrived from England via the early settlers, lemon meringue pie got its start right here. It began with an innovative female pastry chef and teacher in the early days of the United States and gained popularity via her students – the “social network” of their day. Perhaps the phrase, “as American as…” should have a different ending.

Slice of lemon meringue pieSlice of lemon meringue pie — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne

Mrs. Goodfellow’s Lemon Meringue Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

The following recipe is adapted from chef Walter Staib’s 2013 cookbook, Sweet Taste of History. Chef Staib is the driving force behind Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern Restaurant, and host of the Emmy-winning PBS series A Taste of History, where he features foods from an earlier era.

Staib showcases Mrs. Goodfellow in Season 9, Episode 5; his Executive Pastry Chef, Diana Wolkow, recreates recipes using early 19th-century cooking techniques. It’s particularly fascinating to watch the use of a “salamander,” a red-hot iron disc that’s taken directly from the coals of the wood fire to brown the meringue topping.

Pie crust:

  • 1 2/3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 ounces (one stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 4-5 tablespoons ice water

Lemon filling:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 7 large egg yolks
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar

Zest of 2 lemons

  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed

Meringue:

  • 7 large egg whites
  • ¼ cup sugar

Prepare and pre-bake the pie crust:

  1. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together flour and salt.–
  2. Using a pastry cutter, or your hands, cut in the cold butter until the mixture is a coarse crumble.
  3. Sprinkle in water 1 tablespoon at a time and toss together until a dough ball starts to form. Add only enough water to hold the ball together.
  4. Form the dough into a disc, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before use.
  5. Preheat an oven to 400º F.
  6. Roll out the dough on a floured surface into a round about ¼-inch thick and place in 9-inch pie pan.
  7. Line the pie dough with aluminum foil or parchment paper and gently pour in dried beans or rice to weigh down the dough and prevent it from buckling in the pan.
  8. Bake 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Prepare the lemon filling:

  1. In a stainless steel saucepan, whisk together the whole eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and the lemon zest until combined.
  2. Whisk in the lemon juice and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the custard is very thick. When you drag a spatula through it, you should be able to see the bottom of the pot for a few seconds before the curd falls back on itself.
  3. Remove from the heat, pour the curd into a large bowl, and whisk in the butter.
  4. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until the curd cools slightly.
  5. Pour the curd into the pie shell, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until the curd is cold.

Prepare the meringue:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400º F.
  2. In the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy.
  3. Sprinkle in the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and whip on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form.
  4. Spoon or pipe the meringue over the cooled curd (create a few swirls & peaks, which will look great when browned!).
  5. Bake until the meringue has browned, about 12 to 15 minutes.
  6. Serve at room temperature and enjoy!

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