Some desserts are so reminiscent of “the good ol’ days” that they are skipped over when some chefs are skimming through cook books because they’re considered passé. They’re the forte of the Aunt Bees and grandmas of the world, not the stylish, trend-following cook of today. However, I am of the opinion that old things are still wonderful and they were popular in grandma’s day for a reason: they were delicious! And if they’re delicious, who cares about “trendy,” right?
Case in point: lemon icebox pie. If you skim through any old cookbook you may have tucked away in a cabinet or on a shelf, you will inevitably find several versions of this old standby. Each woman had her favorite way to prepare it, and they were likely all delicious. Some lemon icebox pie recipes used fresh lemons, some reconstituted lemon juice or frozen lemonade, and some even powdered lemon drink mix. There was no shortage of creativity in these old cookbooks, certainly.
My choice for this, and any lemon dessert I make, is fresh-squeezed lemon juice. I really enjoy fresh lemons, don’t you? They’re so bright, pretty, and inexpensive. I love that they release a gorgeous, clean smell into the room when you cut them and squeeze them. They’re also full of vitamin C, which is a great bonus. They’re perfect, especially during the hot summer months. (And if you need a centerpiece for your table, a pretty bowl filled with fresh lemons can serve that purpose, too. What a hard working little fruit!)
The peak season for lemons, according to website nutrition-and-you.com, is April through August, though they are typically available in stores year 'round. They advise that you choose big, plump, firm fruits that feel heavy for their size. Look for vibrant, bright yellow fruits imparting a fresh, citrusy scent that is noticeable when you gently roll your finger over them, the website advises.
One of the most fun things about lemons, for me, is how much my oldest son, Justin, has always loved them. When he was a toddler, he would reach for the lemon in my glass of water every time we ate dinner out. His chubby little hand would open and close, open and close, reaching for my water glass to try to get to the lemon. I’d give in, give him the lemon slice, and he’d take it out of my palm and put it up to his sweet little mouth. As soon as he nibbled on it and the sour lemon juice squirted into his mouth, his back would stiffen, his face would scrunch up, and he’d shake his little head back and forth. Then he’d go in for more! I’ve never seen a baby like lemons so much. He’s 24 now, and he still loves them just as much.
Since lemons are so popular in my family, I made this simple dessert as an homage to grandma’s lemon icebox pie. It’s easier than making a real pie, though, which may encourage you to try it soon! Sometimes fussing with pie crusts puts us off, doesn’t it? We’re not going there with this dessert.
Just know, going in, that the pudding part of this dessert puts any boxed lemon pudding to shame. There is sort of a dull sweet lemon taste to boxed pudding, in my opinion, when there should be a bright, tart taste. This lemon pudding is exactly that: bright, tart, and completely delicious. Go all out and make this from scratch; you won’t be sorry. If you stopped right after making the pudding and ate it, instead of continuing to assemble the dessert, I would not blame you. It’s that good.
Here’s the recipe:
Creamy Lemon Icebox Dessert
6 large egg yolks
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
24 graham crackers
1 cup heavy cream
1. In a small saucepan, whisk together yolks, 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest and salt. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in lemon juice. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Cover with plastic (pressing directly onto surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes.
2. Line bottom of an 8”- or 9″- square baking dish with about 12 graham crackers (break into pieces to fill space, if necessary). Spoon 1/2 of pudding over graham crackers, spreading into an even layer. Repeat with remaining graham crackers and rest of pudding. Cover; refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.
3. Just before serving, whip cream with remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar until it holds stiff peaks. Spread whipped cream in a thin layer over the top of the dessert. Chill (if you can resist eating it now!) Cut into squares and serve.
I hope you enjoy this refreshing, creamy old-fashioned treat. I’d love to have some right now, sitting in a rocking chair on a porch visiting with a sweet grandma about the good ol' days. If you do that yourself, I think it’ll make your day.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com and at Facebook.com/whatsouthernfolkseat.