We just had our Annual Johnson Family Reunion this past weekend. By my sister’s count, we had a total of 45 family members. That’s a pretty good number! There is no doubt that us Johnson’s like food! No Johnson reunion would be complete without all those memorable potluck dishes, and too many to list.

I have always been amazed with three picnic tables full of food, from casseroles, salads, and desserts, that no one makes the same thing! How does that happen? There’s always so much to choose from, so I can’t help myself from taking a tablespoon of this and a tablespoon of that.

The one hot dish that I really miss the most, is Aunt Elsie’s homemade pot of baked beans. No one made them like she did! And to this day, I still haven’t come across homemade baked beans as good as hers. I keep telling myself that I need to make her baked beans, but I never do. I always say after each year’s reunion, “maybe next year I will make them”, but I never do. Maybe it’s something about just sticking a whole onion in the middle of the pot of beans. It’s not like baking, where you measure and weigh everything.  I guess that’s why I chose schooling in Baking & Pastry Arts, versus Culinary Arts! I’ve always been drawn to breads and pastries . . . really anything sweet!

So, talking about sweets! Aunt Elsie would bring her Soda Cracker Lemon Torte every year, in the same old cake pan. This torte is just the best, and it’s easy to make! It’s light, not too sweet, and not too lemony, but just right. It’s been 10 years now since Elsie passed away and even though Elsie’s lemon torte is in our family cookbook that my sister and I put together back in 2004, no one has continued to make this for the family reunion.

Well, my mom has been doing a bit of cleaning in her house, and a couple of months ago, she found Aunt Elsie’s old cake pan tucked away downstairs and mom asked me if I wanted it. Of course, I said “yes”! Mom said “this was the cake pan that Elsie always brought her lemon torte in”. So I took it home and the first thing I did, was opened our family cookbook and found Elsie’s recipe. I already knew this was what I wanted to bring to the family reunion. I figured since I failed on the baked beans, that I would get this one right!

So my hubby took a piece of Elsie’s lemon torte. After his first bite, he said “mmm, this is so good Pam”. I was so tickled. My mom had a piece too and said, “it tastes just as I remembered how Elsie made it”. I knew then I had done well!

Aunt Elsie’s lemon torte sure brought back a lot of wonderful memories this year. I remember the days when I was little and my dad, uncles, cousins and some of the aunts, joining in for a game of softball. I also remember the table clothes brought by each family and placed on top of each picnic table. So many designs, so many colors. You just don’t forget simple things like that. And then there is the ice cream! Still to this day, we all share an ice cream cone mid-afternoon. This was a tradition started by my grandpa Albert.

Over the years, like with many family reunions, many have passed on, including my Dad, who passed away in June. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it felt different. But I also knew that Dad was with us in spirit. You could see that in all his pictures he has taken over the years, which he then made into story boards. It’s the first place everyone goes to reminisce of reunions gone by.

My mom had asked my sister if she had gotten any pictures this year, and she said “only one”. I took two, and my cousin had posted a few on Facebook. Sorry Dad, we sure dropped the ball on carrying on that tradition this year. We’ll do better next year!

Despite a day of missing my Dad so much and his infectious smile, upbeat attitude and zest for life. I promise we will do better with pictures next year, Dad! And Aunt Elsie, thank you keeping those memories and traditions alive in our family. But most of all, thank you for giving me the best gift of all, my love of baking, and that old cake pan!

Until next year’s reunion, I guess I had better get cracking and learn how to make those baked beans!

Aunt Elsie’s Soda Cracker Lemon Dessert

12-16 servings, depending how little or big of servings you want!

Aunt Elsie’s Soda Cracker Lemon Dessert

A family reunion favorite!


  • 3 large egg whites (room temperature)
  • 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 16 soda crackers, crushed
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup pecans, chopped (optional, but so good!)
  • 1 - 12 oz. container Cool Whip
  • 1 - 8 oz. package full fat cream cheese (room temperature)
  • 2 Tbsp. confectioner's powdered sugar
  • 1 - 3.4 oz. package instant lemon pudding mix
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, cold
  • 1/2 cup coconut, toasted (wait until next day to sprinkle on top)


Place oven rack in middle of oven. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (F). Spray a 9 x 13" pan with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

When oven is preheated, place a piece of parchment paper on a baking tray. Toast the coconut for 5-10 minutes. Coconut should be nicely browned. Remove from oven and cool completely. Place in small baggie. Note: You will want to wait until the day you serve this dessert to sprinkle the coconut on top. This can be done up to 4 hours ahead of time.

Place a mixing bowl on stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Use two small bowls to separate the egg whites from the yolks. Place egg whites in the mixing bowl. Note: Cover egg yolks with plastic wrap. Save for another use, like adding to scrambled eggs!

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff. Slowly add sugar and beat until dissolved. Fold in soda cracker crumbs and pecans. Spread in greased 9 x 13 pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool completely.

Once the crust is cooled, beat the cream cream and powdered sugar together in a medium size bowl until smooth. Fold in half of the Cool Whip. Spread 1/2 over torte. Reserve the other 1/2 for the topping.

Empty contents of pudding mix into a medium size bowl. Add milk. Beat with a wire whisk for approximately 2 minutes, until it thickens. Spread over the cream layer.

Spread the remaining 1/2 of the cream mixture on top of pudding. Place a piece of plastic wrap lightly over top. Note: Remember to wait until the day to sprinkle the toasted coconut on top.


This dessert is best prepared one day ahead of time. Will keep in refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.