11-Mile Treat: Lemon Icebox Pie

To celebrate a landmark in her marathon training, the author prepares a Southern favorite.


Photo by ginnerobotFlickrCC

Week Three
Total Mileage: 22 miles
Weekend Meal: Whole wheat noodles with spicy peanut sauce and vegetables

Week Four
Total Mileage: 29 miles
Weekend Meal: Chili, salad, Camembert, and lemon icebox pie

I just had to make lemon icebox pie.

I had a reason to celebrate: Week Four is a landmark in the marathon training program I'm using. The weekend's long run is 11 miles—almost half the distance of the marathon itself, and the first run where mileage hits double digits.

Plus, I had the appetite to appreciate dessert. Week Four is when my hunger goes into overdrive, when I have to bring extra snacks to work so I can make it to lunchtime without devouring my sandwich and survive the afternoon without feeling faint. I make dinner plans carefully, knowing I'll be cranky if I have to wait past 7 p.m. to eat.

Yankee that I am, I'd never heard of, let alone tasted, lemon icebox pie until I moved to Leland, Mississippi.

I did my Week Four long run along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Capitol Crescent Trail through Georgetown and then out toward Maryland. It was a cold, beautiful, wintry Sunday morning—the water in the canal was frozen and snow was the ground, and I could almost convince myself I was on a weekend getaway to a cross-country ski lodge rather than in the middle of a marathon training run just a few miles outside of downtown D.C.

After returning home, I went to the grocery store and stocked up on all the things I eat when my body starts needing more—dried cranberries to add to salads, peach mango juice to supplement my constant water drinking, grapefruits and high-fiber cereals for the bigger breakfast I know I'll be needing. I also bought the butter, sugar, eggs, and other ingredients I needed for dessert.

I mixed up a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough—I use the classic Nestle Toll House recipe with a little less flour and all brown sugar instead of half brown, half regular—to freeze and have on hand during the week. But that wasn't enough. I couldn't honor the Week Four milestone with cookies I've been making since I was 10 from a recipe on the back of a bag of chocolate chips. The occasion called for something special. It called for lemon icebox pie.

Yankee that I am, I'd never heard of, let alone tasted, lemon icebox pie until I moved to Leland, Mississippi after college. And since I rarely seek out citrusy desserts—I'm more of a chocolate or caramel person—it's likely that my ignorance would have continued had my roommate's mother not bought one from Leland's Mennonite bakery and served it to us as dessert for Rosh Hashana dinner our first fall there.

The pie was an intensely lemony custard with a crumbled graham cracker crust, topped with airy whipped cream. As the name suggests, it's served chilled, but it's not cold and solid like ice cream cake or semifreddo—it's cool and smooth, like a rich yogurt.

I bought the pie from Connie's Kitchen countless times during my two and a half years in Leland. It wasn't until I returned North and received Martha Hall Foose's Screen Doors and Sweet Tea for my birthday last year that it even occurred to me I could make the dish myself. I'd figured it was a complicated recipe that could be mastered only by Southern women past the age of 50, so I'd added it to my list of desserts I love but would never attempt, like Napoleons and macarons (the sandwich kind made with egg whites, not the almond-and-coconut variety).

In fact, lemon icebox pie is easy—just crush some graham crackers and mix them with butter and sugar for the crust, then combine egg yolks, lemon juice, lemon zest, and sweetened condensed milk for the filling. There's a fair amount of cooking, cooling, and chilling along the way, so it takes about an afternoon from start to finish, but the active prep time is quite short.

The most challenging part is finding the right situation to serve it. The pie is good enough—and in my circles, anyway, unusual enough—that you don't want to just make it and eat a slice, then put it in the fridge to work through slowly throughout the week, which is what I usually do with desserts I prepare. You want a big group so you can watch the delighted reactions as people eat it, either because they're newly acquainted with the dessert and have just discovered its wonderfulness, or because they ate it as children and are thrilled to taste it again.

I decided to bring it to my church's weekly potluck dinner, which was appropriate on a number of levels. Like lemon icebox pie itself, I first fell in love with church potlucks in Mississippi, when I was just learning to cook for myself and took any chance I could to eat other people's homemade food. Leland Presbyterian Church's Wednesday night potlucks were a feast of foods I never ate growing up, either because I wasn't allowed—as was the case with fried chicken—or because sophisticated New York palates had misguidedly shunned them, like green bean casserole. My contribution was inevitably a salad made from bagged lettuce from the local Kroger, in part because I'd convinced myself I was too busy to cook, in part because—as much as I relished the biscuits and Jello salads—I felt I needed to eat something that wouldn't horrify my mother.

The spread at my church in D.C. couldn't be more different than the one at Leland Pres: a platter of Camembert, pita chips, and cashews sits next to a frittata with winter vegetables, and three green salads vie for attention from the hungry churchgoers. During Week Three, when I only had to do six miles for my long run and my sweet tooth was still at bay, I'd made whole wheat pasta with spicy peanut sauce and chopped raw vegetables. More than half of it went untouched. Clearly the last thing this potluck needed was another sophisticated, healthy option. It needed a lemon icebox pie.

So that 11-mile Sunday, I brought my pie to church and set it next to a box of cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake. At the end of the evening, all that remained in my pie plate were a few streaks of whipped cream. (And there were plenty of cupcakes left in the box—not that I was keeping tabs.) When I picked up my pie plate, two young men approached me.

"Did you make that pie?" one of them asked.

"Yes I did."

"It was really good," the other said. They both nodded. But they didn't need to tell me—I already knew.