American Classics: Lemon Chocolate Pie

In my mind, some desserts are inextricably linked to certain people. Such is the case with my late great-Aunt Ida and her beloved Lemon Chocolate Pie. For the uninitiated, Lemon Chocolate Pie is a staple in New Haven, Connecticut bakeries—and a pie I've yet to encounter elsewhere. Where most lemon pies are single crusted affairs, this pie is double crusted with a thick, sweet lemon filling that's similar to the pudding-like innards of a lemon meringue. Once the pie is baked and cooled, its top is covered with what amounts to chocolate frosting. As you can imagine, it's a total sugar-bomb. It was also Aunt Ida's favorite pie since childhood, so if we were paying her a visit at teatime, a Lemon Chocolate Pie was de rigueur.

To trace Aunt Ida's love for the Lemon Chocolate Pie we have to go back to her childhood. My great-aunt and her four siblings grew up on Wooster Street; New Haven's own Little Italy. As the children of Italian immigrants, they had few childhood frills. My great-grandparents, a seamstress and a tailor, worked hard to provide for their family. All of their kids went to college and the three boys all graduated from Yale, but along the way money was tight. Aunt Ida told us stories about her younger brother walking along the train tracks to pick up little pieces of coal to heat their apartment. As a result, Lemon Chocolate Pie was a special indulgence. I've yet to track down a creation story for this particular type of pie, but I suspect one of the reasons for its enduring popularity goes back to Italy, specifically the Amalfi coast, from where many of the Italian Americans in the Greater New Haven area trace their roots. And the Amalfitans, my great, great-grandparents included, were a lemon farming, citrus-loving people.

This is the first time I'll publicly admit it, but Lemon Chocolate Pie was not my favorite treat. I much preferred pastries like crispy and flaky sfogliatelle (a.k.a. lobster tails.) While there was nothing inherently wrong with the concept of Aunt Ida's favorite pie—buttery pie crust, good; lemon filling, good; chocolate frosting, great—the execution was just too sugar-laden for me. Still, every time I see lemon and chocolate paired together it makes me think of Aunt Ida and how happy that pie made her.

Last year, I tried the Black Bottom Lemon Pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Park Slope. It's a dark chocolate ganache-lined pie with a cloud-like lemon custard. Now this was a lemon and chocolate pie that I could get behind. With the Elsen sisters of Four & Twenty Blackbirds as my inspiration, I set about trying to remake Aunt Ida's Lemon Chocolate Pie into a less sweet, slightly more sophisticated treat. The resultant recipe amps up the choco-factor while packing plenty of pucker. I think Aunt Ida would be most pleased.

Got a favorite classic American dessert recipe you'd like to see featured here? Email us with the subject: "American Classics."