Ma's Lemon Sponge Pie
Desserts,  Pies,  Recipes

Ma’s Lemon Sponge Pie

Reddy Kilowatt says, "Cook Electrically"

It’s holiday time. Who is making Ma’s Lemon Sponge Pie?

My husband’s grandmother, Frances Leahey, brought home this recipephany from a cooking class sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Electric Company and its live-wire mascot Reddy Kilowatt in the 1940s. She had just bought an electric oven, and the class was, according to Reddy, to help “our electric customers to make the very best possible use of the electricity they buy.” There is no better use of electricity than this pie.

At first, Ma thought this recipe was the case of a lemon meringue pie gone awry, where the teacher mistakenly folded the egg whites in with the filling instead of spreading them on top. Whatever its origin, lemon sponge pie took the family by storm, and is now in its fourth generation of sweetening holidays, family reunions, celebrations and all-around good times.

The pie performs that magic trick of separating into golden cake on top and tart lemon filling below. It holds together so well, the tradition is to eat it as a finger food. You pick up a wedge right out of the pie pan, holding a napkin below simply to be polite. I prefer a fork and plate, though, to slow me down and help delay my rush for seconds.

The recipe below has evolved from Ma’s original. My mother-in-law Dorothy, the best baker ever, added more egg, flour and butter. My sister-in-law Chris, who recounted the pie’s history for me, upped the juice to 5 tablespoons many years ago. Now she advises that a half cup is even better, and she omits the lemon rind. So if you have a real lemon urge, feel free to adjust the tartness to your palate. Chris also went from 3 to 4 eggs, for more fluff on top and more creaminess inside. I find that 2 large and 1 jumbo will also do the trick. Apparently with this pie, more is better. Especially on the table.

Ma’s Lemon Sponge Pie

Mix together:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • Grated rind of a lemon
  • 5 tablespoons lemon juice (or up to 1/2 cup)
  • 4 egg yolks, beaten slightly
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

Fold in:

  • Whites of the 4 eggs, beaten stiff but not dry

Pour into unbaked pie shell and bake at 350° for 35 to 45 minutes.

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  • Diane Brody

    Dear C.,

    I remember making the coconut Impossible Pie, but have not heard of these new variations. I looked up the Magic Custard Cake, and it strikes me it might be a distant relative of the Dutch Baby ( There is a kind of custard middle to the Dutch Baby, and with more milk, added butter and sugar, it might just turn into a custard cake like that. I’ll have to look into it.

    Thanks for letting us know about this new trend!


  • c.

    Fascinating history. I knew the Impossible Pie, which is a very close relative to this recipe but in coconut, was created round the same time period, but I didn’t know there were other flavors. However, no pie crust is used for the Impossible Pie (which is how it gets its name). Modern variations of the Impossible Pie are floating around under the name of “Magic Custard Cake”. If you look hard enough, you can find it in vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch, lemon, and banana. I’ve made vanilla, it was fabulous.

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