Monday, April 6, 2015

Third Time is the Charm for Lemon Meringue Pie

This year's Lemon Meringue Pie
Two years ago for Easter I was asked to bring a Lemon Meringue Pie and a Coconut Cream Pie to the Easter festivities at my sister-in-law's house. I got the cold chills thinking about attempting either of these two pies. I have made chiffon pies, fruit pies, nut pies and Chess Pie, but the last time I had tried a Lemon Meringue Pie was when I lived in Guatemala, circa 1973. It came out okay, to my recollection, but my memory could certainly be imperfect at this remove. I had never made another since then, so maybe it didn't come out as well as I recalled. I could not even think of when, if ever, I had made a coconut cream pie. My current husband, of 25 years, dislikes coconut to begin with, and is not over-fond of lemon and tart desserts. When I eat either of these pies, it is as an indulgence when dining out somewhere.

That first attempt at both those pies was a complete and utter disaster. 

Then last year I was asked to make another Lemon Meringue Pie for Easter (surprisingly, after the soup-like consistency of the previous year's attempt). This time I used Rose Levy Berenbaum's Classic Lemon Curd recipe, doubled (from Rose's Heavenly Cakes), and at least the lemon part of the pie was completely perfect. It cut well and held shape. The meringue, however, continued to leave a LOT to be desired. This is what I did with the Lemon Curd part of the recipe:

Lemon Curd in Blind Baked Pie Shell

Lemon Curd

makes enough for a 9 or 10-inch pie

4 teaspoons lemon zest, lightly packed
10 large egg yolks (set aside 4 of the whites for the meringue later)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
6 ounces (3/4 cup) fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt

Place the zest in a bowl. Place a fine mesh strainer over the bowl and set aside. 

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the yolks, sugar and butter. Slowly whisk in the lemon juice until combined. Set the pan over medium low heat and begin cooking the mixture, stirring constantly with a silicone spatula or wire whisk, scraping bottom and sides regularly. You will want to keep heat low as too high a heat will cook the yolks and curdle the mixture. This is easier than it sounds. Just keep stirring and if the mixture looks like it wants to boil, remove the pan from the heat instantly, stirring or whisking briskly to keep the heat down. This process can take 15 minutes or so. It is done once the mixture turns more opaque and will coat the spatula or whisk. 

Once at point, pour the mixture through the fine mesh strainer over the bowl with the lemon zest. Press the curd through the strainer. Once all through the strainer, stir the mixture gently to mix in the lemon zest. Set aside to cool for one hour, placing a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the curd, to prevent a skin forming. After cooling to room temperature, refrigerate for at least another 2 or 3 hours before using.

The Meringue Conundrum

The reason for the meringue difficulty is that Easter "dinner" is served at 12 noon. The trek out there is an hour away. To get myself and any foods ready in the morning is a stretch, so I have made the pie(s) the night before on both these occasions. Any time one makes a meringue topping it will eventually tend to shrink and pull away from the edges of the pie if it is left for a time. It is whipped air bubbles. They will burst and shrink. No real getting around that. In trying to find a way to make meringue that remains more stable, I had tried to make an Italian Meringue the first year. Obviously, I overcooked the sugar syrup and obviously, I did not keep the syrup close enough to the edge of the bowl while beating. The meringue was filled with sharp little pieces of hard sugar candy. The second meringue attempt was one that had a cornstarch pudding mixed in to stabilize. It didn't (stabilize) and the consistency was gross. No other word for what I ended up with.

When I was once again asked to make a lemon meringue pie for Easter dinner this year I figured either they are testing my stamina, hoping for a better outcome (beginning to sound like the definition for insanity), or they are just masochists. 

Well, at least I knew I could make a good lemon curd, and that is half the battle. But the meringue was still my bugaboo. I spent some time thinking about the Italian Meringue. I did more research on the making of it, and the timing of things. I also wondered if perchance the fact that I live at just over 1,000 feet above sea level could possibly be causing a problem with cooking the sugar syrup. I couldn't find too much on that topic, but somewhere I read that it would work better if cooked to 2 degrees less than what the recipe called for. Of course, recipes vary also, and some called for the syrup to cook to 340 degrees and some said 338 degrees. Heavens...
This year's Lemon Meringue Pie with lovely meringue

So What is Italian Meringue?

There are three main types of meringue: French, Swiss and Italian. 
  • French meringue is your most basic: beat the whites until soft peaks form, gradually beat in sugar until the mixture is glossy and holds peaks. It leaves the egg uncooked, until it is baked to brown.
  • Swiss meringue is made similarly to a 7-minute icing. Mix the egg whites with sugar in a bowl set over (not in) boiling water and beat until they form glossy peaks. This makes a slightly more dense meringue.
  • Italian meringue requires cooking sugar and water to soft ball stage (235 to 240 degrees F). While the syrup cooks, the whites are beaten with a little cream of tartar or lemon juice, then the hot syrup is poured slowly into the meringue while beating constantly (a bit of a juggling act) to stiff glossy peaks. This method leaves the whites cooked enough to consume without further baking, if needed. This also leaves the meringue the most dense of the three.
If you, like me, dislike the regular meringue with that bubbly, burst-in the-mouth quality, then one of these other two variations could be your better bet. I love the consistency of Italian meringue, though some feel it is dense and candy-like. Your choice.

Things I Resolved to Do on the Meringue Front

In order to get the meringue to come out properly, I read, there are a few things to consider. These are ones I resolved to do:
  1. The egg whites should be fresh (as opposed to older), but at room temperature to whip to best volume.
  2. Do not wait to beat the whites until after the syrup is ready! This will likely have the syrup overcooked by the time the whites are at soft peaks.
  3. You will not want the whites beaten too much or too hard before the syrup is added. It is dangerous (unless you are well-versed in making this meringue) therefore, to use a heavy duty stand mixer, because it is far too easy to over beat.
  4. Along the same lines, the heavy duty mixer has beaters that beat very close to the edge of the bowl. Once any of the syrup hits the beaters, you've ruined the perfectly smooth meringue.
  5. Because of numbers 3 and 4 above, I opted to use my small hand mixer. It beats far more slowly and it is easier to keep the beaters away from the syrup.
  6. Lastly, I opted to split the difference and cook the syrup to 237 degrees. Not 238 and not 240.
Pile the meringue onto the curd

Italian Meringue

makes enough to mound high on a 10-inch pie

1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons water (3 ounces or 90 ml.)
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional

Have the room temp egg whites in a large bowl with the cream of tartar. Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, cover the pan with a tight fitting lid for about 2 minutes, to wash down any stray sugar crystals from the sides of the pan. Remove the lid and insert a candy thermometer so that it is in the sugar mixture but not touching the bottom of the pan. Cook without stirring to between 235 and 240 degrees. If at sea level, you might cook to 240 degrees. At 1,300 feet, I cooked the syrup to 237 degrees.

While the syrup is coking, begin beating the egg whites in the bowl. Beat on medium speed, only to the point where they barely will hold a peak. Once syrup is cooked to temperature, begin pouring the syrup into the whites in a thin stream, while continuously beating with the mixer, ensuring the syrup is well incorporated, without getting syrup onto the beaters. Continue to beat the meringue until it is cooled. It will be quite hot right after incorporating the hot syrup. To speed this process, the bowl can be set over cold water to finalize the beating and cooling process. Lastly, beat in the vanilla, if using.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (350 on Convection Bake). Spread the meringue onto the top of the lemon curd in the blind baked pie shell, ensuring the meringue is well sealed against the pie shell. Use a spoon to artfully make lovely peaks all over the meringue. Bake the pie for 12 minutes, to brown and set the meringue.
Spread meringue to edges and artfully create lovely peaks

And then the Pie Shells...

Another of my bugaboos in the kitchen is blind baking pie shells. They just never seem to come out well for me. They slip down into the pie plate and end up completely uneven. I consider myself a good baker. My main bulk of baking, however, is cookies, cakes, bars, crisps, with pies a far bit behind. I make a tasty and flaky pie crust, though I dislike doing it. I (unlike many) really love the bottom soggy crust, so that is never an issue in my book! I love eating pies, including all the ones I mentioned earlier. Chess Pie is probably one of my (and my husband's) favorites. 

Lemon Meringue Pie requires a blind baked pie shell. Every time I make one, I am fearful of how it will look once baked. This time, I decided to try and take every precaution I could think of:
  • I crimped the edge of the pastry well up and to the most outer edge of the pie pan. I have always tried to do this anyway, but not often successfully.
  • I used a knife tip to very thoroughly prick steam vent-holes all over the bottom and sides of the shell, in hopes it would prevent undue puffing and/or deflating.
  • I molded a piece of foil to another like-sized pie plate bottom, so it would fit well into the unbaked shell for the first part of baking.
  • I lined the bottom and sides of the unbaked pie shell with this molded foil, and then used a full pound of dried beans in the foil as pie weights. I also made sure to push the weight of the beans mostly against the sides, so it would support the sides and prevent the sliding downwards I have encountered, to date.
Guess what? I got the best looking blind-baked pie shell I believe I have ever made! Practice makes perfect. Try, try again. All those platitudes actually work. Whew!

Unbaked shell, lined with foil and dried beans

Single Crust Pie Shell

makes one 9 or 10-inch pie shell

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup lard, shortening or butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 5 tablespoons water

Place the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the lard (or shortening or butter) into the dry ingredients until it makes a nice crumbly mixture. Begin adding in the water, a tablespoon at a time, using a fork to lightly toss the water and crumb mixture. Once the mixture will come together in a ball, no more water is needed. Bring the mixture together and wrap tightly. Chill the dough for at least an hour or up to 3 days. 

When ready to use, sprinkle a surface with flour and roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch thick. Roll the pastry back onto the rolling pin, then unroll it over the pie plate. Gently ease it into the plate, then trim the edges to about 1/2-inch wider than the pie plate. Fold this overhang under, and then crimp the edges as high onto the rim as possible. 

If filling the pie shell with a filling that will need cooking, it is now ready to use in your recipe. If blind baking, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick steam vent holes all over the bottom and sides of the shell. Set a piece of foil into the shell and weight the foil with pie weights or dried beans. Push the beans so they will press against the sides of the shell  and prevent undue sagging. Bake the shell for about 10 to 12 minutes, then remove the beans and foil and continue baking for another 10 to 12 minutes, or until the shell is golden and crisped all over. Cool the shell. Discard the beans. (The beans "can" be used after the baking, but are not best in either flavor or "good for you").

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.