On occasion my mom made Lemon Meringue Pie. It may not have been perfect but served warm at dinner (our lunch) it was wonderful. As a leftover—not so much, particularly after being kept in the refrigerator. I cannot say her pie was a magnificent work of art as some might describe theirs. It would not have won best of show at a county fair based on its looks, but to me it tasted truly memorable – even if made with Jell-O Lemon Pudding & Pie Filling. I do remember that sometimes Lemon Meringue Pies wept. I always thought that a strange, but apt name for the seeping of the liquid from the meringue. Little did I know then that I would be researching this 70 some years later and learn this was not a good thing when it comes to meringue. All I knew then, and remember now is, it was always delicious when eaten while still warm. I marvel that with the workload that she carried just keeping our household running she took the time to make labor intensive desserts like this at all.
Some will say the Quakers should receive the credit for inventing lemon custard in the late 1700s. Others, that a Philadelphian, Elizabeth Goodfellow, who arrived in America in 1806, created it. The lemon custard is almost of no consequence in making a Lemon Meringue Pie however, the secret is in the meringue. Almost anyone can manage the custard part.
Meringue first appeared in print when Francois Massialot, a French chef serving the royal household in the 1690s published his version. Of course, few ate the same foods as those at Versailles. Nevertheless, the recipe then travelled to England and was in print there by 1706. Some claim it was the creation of a Swiss chef in the 1720s, others say that it had already been served to the Merovingian kings of France in the 1480s. I found that 16th century cooks had discovered beating egg whites with a whisk-like broom produced an attractive foam. In 1604 The Complete Recipe Book was published by Lady Elinor Fettiplace in England who described meringue as “white biskit bread”. Another Frenchman writing under the pseudonym of Menon mentioned it in his cookbook published in 1739. Strangely, that is the same year the first American reference was found in the Memoir and Letters of Jenny C. White Del Bal. She lived in South Africa and little else is known of her. Its origins can also be traced to the village of Meiringen, in the Interlaken district of Switzerland. Makes sense as the names sound similar. It is said to have been imported there by an Italian chef named Gasparini. In the end, like many of our recipes, no one really knows who created meringue. Everyone has had a hand in it.
Meringue is an airy confection of beaten egg whites and sugar. Producing a beautiful meringue can be tricky. Any specks of sugar cause absorption of moisture and result in ‘weeping’—those tiny drops of dew appearing on the crests that I mentioned earlier. For successful meringues, separate eggs carefully—even the smallest amount of yolk will cause the foam to break down. The lemon filling should be soft, but not runny, firm enough to cut, but not stiff or gelatinous. Some instructions caution that for the fluffiest meringue it is best to separate eggs while they are cold and then allow them to come to room temperature. After all meringues are known for their light and airy presentations.
To create a successful meringue the sugar must be finely ground and added gradually. (A mortar and pestle or blender are recommended, but buying powdered sugar is easier.) Then it must be cooked slowly, more dried than baked. Once egg white is beaten an excellent foam is obtained which is then stable for many hours. The reason for that is that surfactants do their work, which reduces surface tensions of a liquid in which they are dissolved. Meringues should be cooked at an exceptionally low temperature. They can shrink, bead, puddle, deflate, burn, sweat, bread down, and turn rubbery. That is why so many recipes insist that one spreads the meringue to the very edges of the pie crust and anchors it there! Meringue pies call for a baker with strong self-esteem! Or someone like my mom who baked them out of love for us and the enjoyment of the flavor – a little imperfection was acceptable. Try it if you dare.
1 cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1 ½ cups cold water
6 large egg yolks
1 TBS grated zest
½ cup lemon juice from 2 or 3 lemons
2 TBS unsalted butter
FOR THE FILLING: Mix the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and water in large nonreactive saucepan.
Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking occasionally and more frequently as the mixture begins to thicken.
When mixture begins to simmer and turns translucent, whisk in the egg yolks, 2 at a time.
Whisk in the zest, then the lemon juice, and finally the butter.
Bring the mixture to a good simmer, whisking constantly.
Remove from heat; place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the filling to prevent skin from forming.
1 TBS cornstarch
1/3 cup water
¼ tsp cream of tartar
½ cup sugar
4 large egg whites
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 Prebaked Pie Dough coated with Graham Cracker Crumbs, fully baked, and cooled completely.
FOR THE MERINGUE:
Mix the cornstarch with the water in a small saucepan.
Bring to a simmer, whisking occasionally at the beginning and more frequently as the mixture thickens.
When mixture begins to simmer and turns translucent, remove from the heat.
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat to 325ºF.
Mix cream of tartar and sugar together.
Beat the egg whites and vanilla until frothy.
Beat in the sugar mixture, 1 TBS at a time, until the sugar is incorporated and soft peaks form.
Add the corn starch mixture, 1 TBS at a time.
Continue to beat the meringue to stiff peaks.
Remove the plastic from the lemon filling and return to an extremely low heat during the last minute or so of beating the meringue (to ensure the filling is hot).
Pour the hot filling into the pie shell.
Using a rubber spatula, immediately distribute the meringue evenly and then center of the pie to keep it from sinking.
Make certain meringue attaches to the piecrust to prevent shrinking. (This is a particularly crucial step often emphasized in reliable recipes!)
Use the back of a spoon to create peaks all over the meringue.
Bake for about 20 minutes.
Transfer to a wire rack and cool to a room temperature.
Serve same day.
Lemon Meringue Pie – The New Best Recipe, Cook’s Illustrated, 2004, p. 908.