Light and Bright Dot’s Lemon Sponge Pie

This lemon pie is just what your taste buds need after a big heavy holiday meal.
This lemon pie is just what your taste buds need after a big heavy holiday meal.

Anyone who knows me knows that I turn up my nose at pumpkin pie.

Yes, that may be sacrilege at this time of year.

But before you think me a pie snob, it’s just that pumpkin filling is too one-note for me. Instead, I prefer a pie with a little more spunk and personality.

Something exactly along the lines of “Dot’s Lemon Sponge Pie.”

This lovely pie with its light and bright character is just what you want to reset the palate after all that heavy turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.

The recipe is from “Pie is Messy” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy.

It’s by pie doyenne Rebecca Grasley, with an assist from food writer Willy Blackmore.

Pie making was ingrained into Grasley’s upbringing. As she writes in the book, “Making pie wasn’t a pastime or a hobby in Northwest Pennsylvania — it was part of the fabric of life.”

A retired nurse, she saw her savings dwindle fast when the stock market nosedived in 2008. To make up for that, she decided to open a pie shop called Pie Hole, not in Pennsylvania, but in Los Angeles, where her son Matthew lived and where she rightly surmised an audience awaited with the appetite and means to buy her pies. Her son’s friend, Sean Brennan, who had experience opening restaurants, became her business partner.

The pie just before going into the oven.
The pie just before going into the oven.
The pie out of the oven.
The pie out of the oven.

Today, in addition to the original Arts District bakery in Los Angeles, Pie Hole boasts four other Southern California outposts, is now in Gelson’s stores in Southern California, and even has outposts in Arizona, Tokyo and Saudi Arabia.

These days, Grasley devotes her time to developing new recipes in the same house she grew up in Pennsylvania.

Talk about a sweet success story.

The book features all manner of pie recipes, from “Pear and Honeyed Goat Cheese Galette” and “S’Mores Pie” to “Apricot Meringue Pie” and “Vegan Coconut Cream Pie.”

“Dot’s Lemon Sponge Pie” can be found regularly only at restaurants in Northeast Pennsylvania, Grasley writes.

What makes this pie unique, she adds, is that while baking, the filling separates into two lemony layers: a creamy layer on the bottom, and an ethereal sponge on top.

That’s because when you whisk together the sugar, milk, flour, butter, lemon zest, and lemon juice for the filling, you incorporate the egg yolk, but then whip the egg white separately before folding it in.

I can’t say that my layers came out that distinct. In fact, my sponge layer was very thin, almost akin to the skin that forms when you let hot milk cool. Even so, the rest of the filling below was wonderfully creamy and spoonable, almost the consistency of pudding or curd. Moreover, the taste was lemony, bright and incredibly refreshing.

A change of pace from the usual holiday pie.
A change of pace from the usual holiday pie.

Most of Grasley’s pies are made with “Moe’s Piecrust” recipe. Moe was her grandmother who was famed for her roast chicken and her pies. Grasley does take some liberties, switching out Moe’s preferred lard for vegetable shortening instead. No matter, it makes for a most crisp crust.

The crust recipe makes enough for a double-crust pie. You’ll need only one crust for this lemon pie recipe, so either freeze half the dough for another time or just halve the recipe at the start.

Because you need to let this pie cool for a couple hours after baking, then refrigerate for another 4 hours, it’s ideal for making the day before the holiday, a real plus when you have your hands full on the day of.

You can see that my sponge layer is very, very thin.
You can see that my sponge layer is very, very thin.

Enjoy the pie chilled or at room temperature, as is, or dolled up a little like I did with dollops of slightly sweetened whipped cream flavored with lemon zest. If you happen to have a bottle of limoncello, a splash folded into the whipped cream would be a real treat.

A lemon pie might not be traditional for Thanksgiving, but it sure provides the palate reset no doubt we all need.

Serve with whipped cream, if you like.
Serve with whipped cream, if you like.

Dot’s Lemon Sponge Pie

(Makes one 9-inch pie)

1 cup sugar

1 cup whole milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tablespoons salted butter, melted

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

Juice of 1 lemon

1 egg, separated

1/2 recipe Moe’s Piecrust (recipe below)

Softly whipped, lightly sweetened whipped cream with lemon zest, for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, milk, flour, butter, lemon zest and juice, and the egg yolk until thoroughly combined. In a small bowl, use a handheld electric mixer to beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Gently fold the whipped egg white into the lemon mixture.

Roll out the crust, and lay it in a 9-inch pie pan. Trim and flute the edge. Spoon the filling into the piecrust.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes longer, or until the top is golden and the middle doesn’t jiggle. This pie browns quickly, so be attentive.

Cool on a rack for 2 hours, and then refrigerate until completely chilled, at least 4 hours more. Serve cold out of the fridge or bring to room temperature first. Serve slices with softly whipped, sweetened whipped cream flavored with a little lemon zest, if you like.

Moe’s PieCrust

(Makes enough for one double-crust pie or two 9-inch single-crust pies)

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup cold vegetable shortening

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup ice-cold water, plus more as needed

In a large bowl, mix the flour, shortening, and salt with a pastry blender until crumbly, and the bits of flour and fat are the size of peas.

Sprinkle the ice water over the mixture, starting with 1/2 cup, and using your hands, quickly mix the dough until it comes together in clumps and you can shape it into a ball. If the mixture is still too crumbly, add more cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Watch the texture as you mix. When the dough becomes smooth and velvety, like a baby’s behind, it’s time to stop working it. If you do happen to overmix the dough, and it resembles an elastic blob, don’t stress. You’ll still enjoy the pie in the end, even if the crust isn’t perfect. And next time you’ll get this step just right.

Alternatively, use your stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. On low speed, combine the flour and salt. Mix in the shortening, increasing the speed up to medium as the fat begins to combine into the flour. Stop when the mixture turns grainy — if it becomes a smooth paste, you’ve gone too far — 2 to 3 minutes. Switch to the paddle attachment and add 1/2 cup of ice water. Mix on medium, and add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough turns smooth and soft.

Divide the dough into two balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, or until you’re ready to roll out the crust.

Adapted from “Pie is Messy” by Rebecca Grasley

More Festive Pies and Tarts to Enjoy: Apple Custard Tart

And: Asiago Apple Galette

And: Chocolate-Almond Pear Tart

And: Cranberry & Pear Tart

And: Cranberry Crumble Pie

And: Cranberry Linzer Tart

And: Cranberry-Pomegranate Mousse Pie

And: Frozen Maple-Mousse Pie with Candied Cranberries

And: Gluten-Free Rosemary Pear Pie

And: Pumpkin Swirl-Ice Cream Pie with Chocolate-Almond Bark and Toffee Sauce

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