From the Homestead Kitchen: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Sunkist’s Lemon Cake Pie

by Gennie Truelock

Last week, I heard my dogs barking in the yard. But this wasn’t their average warning bark that typically happens when someone walks by, something really seemed to be bothering them. When I stepped outside to see what was the matter, I thought I heard someone trying to soothe them, but all I saw was that they were both standing on our small deck barking in the direction of the neighbor’s yard. Thinking that maybe the voice came from a passer-by, it took me a moment to realize that my neighbor was standing on a tall ladder in their yard and could be seen over the high fence. He was picking lemons from his tree. After I calmed the dogs down and chatted with him, he asked if I wanted any lemons. “Sure!” I responded and boy, did he deliver! About 30 minutes later there was a knock on my door and a big bag of huge lemons were there. I am very lucky to have such a generous neighbor who has a very prolific lemon tree.

Taking the bag inside, I suddenly thought, “What am I going to do with all these lemons?” Luckily, I was able to find a quick answer in the pages of a 1928 citrus-based recipe pamphlet from the Homestead’s collection, Sunkist Recipes For Every Body. If anyone would have an answer to my citrus conundrum, it was going to be Sunkist. The Southern California Fruit Exchange began in 1893 as an orange growers’ collective in Claremont, California, by the father and son team of P.J. and Edward Dreher. Later renamed the California Fruit Growers Exchange in 1905, and eventually Sunkist Growers, Inc., in 1952, the Sunkist brand has become synonymous with citrus. But did you know that it all began as a very clever marketing ploy?

Cover of the Sunkist Recipes For Every Day, 1928. From the Homestead’s collection.

From sun-kissed to Sunkist

By the early 20th century, the citrus industry in California was booming and a glut of fruit was heading to market. In an effort to stand out, the California Fruit Growers Exchange (CFGE) hired the advertising agency Lord & Thomas in 1907 to create a campaign to increase sales of its cooperative members’ produce. The ad agency landed on the adjective “sun-kissed” as a way to describe the fruits from California, but changed the spelling of the hyphenated word to Sunkist, so it could be trademarked, which can’t be done with commonly used words, and it worked. The first year of the campaign saw a 50% increase in sales. By 1909, the CFGE was wrapping its fruits in paper stamped with the Sunkist logo and soon other marketing and promotional materials bearing the Sunkist name, like the pamphlet that I turned to, could be found.

Lemons and Sunkist

In 1915, lemons imported from Italy had a substantial foothold in the American citrus market, making up almost half of the lemons sold in the US. In an effort to combat this stranglehold, the CFGE flexed their advertising muscle once again and began touting not only the culinary uses of Sunkist lemons, but the benefits of using lemons as a household cleaner and even a hair rinse. Their efforts paid off, and by 1924 Sunkist lemons made up approximately 90% of the lemons sold in American markets. (For more on the history of the lemon industry in the Los Angeles region, take a look at this previous post by the Museum’s director, Paul Spitzzeri.)

Recommendations on how to use lemons from the 1928 Sunkist Recipes for Every Day.
From the Homestead’s collection.

The Lemon Cake Pie recipe

Lemon is one of my absolute favorite flavors. Whether used in cookies, bars, cakes, or pies, they bring a lovely level of acidity and tartness that cuts through a sweet and rich dessert, balancing everything out. As I began to look through the pages of the Sunkist pamphlet, I was hoping to find a new way to feature this wonderful citrus. Soon, I came across something that I had never heard of before: a Lemon Cake Pie. This dish seems to have a Midwestern origin, so for those of you that come from the Midwest or regions closely associated with the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch, this sweet treat may be a little more familiar to you, but I grew up in California, and have never heard of anything like this before. I, therefore, wanted to see what I could find out about this interesting cake-pie hybrid. Although there doesn’t seem to be any definitive history on this particular dessert, the recipe has a lot in common with what are known as “pudding cakes,” or “magic cakes,” which are made from a single batter, but as they bake, separate into a sponge cake-like layer on top and a custard layer on the bottom. While researching, I found a recipe for an English dessert dating back to the 17th century known as a Lemon Delicious. Its simple components and measurements are very similar to the recipe for this Lemon Cake Pie. But how it ends up in a pie crust in this American version seems to be a bit of a mystery. One theory I have is that by placing the filling into a pie crust, it makes it easier to slice and serve to guests. If you want to make this historic recipe, I do recommend baking the pie at 375 degrees for 45 minutes rather than the time and temperature suggested in the recipe. Just to ensure that your pie crust and the filling bakes evenly.

Lemon Cake Pie recipe from Sunkist Recipes For Every Day, 1928.
From the Homestead’s collection.

By now you might be wondering how this recipe tastes. In a word…refreshing. The texture of the dessert is light due to the whipped egg whites and the lemon flavor really comes through, making it a tasty choice for a hot summer day. Perhaps I’ll make one for my neighbor, as a thank you for all those lemons.

A close-up of a slice of Lemon Cake Pie.

4 thoughts

  1. I’m going to ask a stupid question; has the crust been blind baked ahead of time, or does the crust bake with the filling in it?

    I’m really enjoying your blog since I found it recently. I grew up in Los Angeles, and my father moved there while still a child- he was born in 1905- so I’m reading about things he might have seen happening!

  2. So glad that you are enjoying the blog and it’s not a dumb question at all! I had the same question when I first took a look at the recipe. You are supposed to bake it in an unbaked pie crust and bake it all together. I would recommend however, that if you like a thicker crust on your pies that you pre-bake the crust to give it a little bit of a head start to avoid the dreaded soggy-bottom. If you give the recipe a try, let us know what you thought of it!

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