Friday, May 09, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Lemon Meringue Pie

Thanks for coming back! I know I haven't updated in a few weeks, thanks to law school finals taking over my life, but I never stopped baking! For one thing, I had to finish up the last two installments of the auction's "Month of Pie" lot for the winning bidder. His last two pie choices were cherry and lemon meringue.

I never liked lemon meringue pie growing up. I think the texture of meringue didn't sit well with my untrained palate, and the lemon pudding part was never very lemony. I now know that my mother used a mix for the pudding, and after last week's hugely successful first attempt of my own at making one, I also know that making your own filling from scratch makes an unbeatable lemon meringue pie.

I dug up a recipe from a FoodieView search for lemon meringue pie, and I actually followed it to the letter for once, unless you count doubling it so I could have a "control" pie. I'm not sure what the ginger snaps really added to the final product, so this weekend, when I bake another pie for my mom, I might leave them out.

My favorite part of the process was making the lemon filling. When you're cooking the solution of water, sugar, cornstarch and salt on the stovetop, it's a milky white soupy liquid right up until it starts to boil. Then it magically transforms into a clear, thick gelatin. If you are using a nonstick saucepan, I highly recommend that you have a good silicon or heat-resistant whisk that is not flimsy. It needs to be able to stir a thick solution. I actually had to switch to my steel whisk after the solution thickened, which is definitely a no-no with nonstick cookware!

One final tip: squeeze your own lemon juice! One lemon should do it, and, really, you need the zest from that lemon or your lemon meringue pie will fall flat (and I am not talking about the meringue). My favorite juicer for citrus is one of these gadgets. They're about $12 on, but I have seen them pretty cheap in other kitchen stores. They make juicing lemons MUCH easier than spraining your wrists on the old fashioned kind.

For tips on how to make a meringue successfully, check out this helpful website at Granted, the following recipe creates a much heavier, denser meringue due to the extra sugar and vanilla extract, so don't expect it to be a mile high...but it will taste amazing if you follow the instructions!

Lemon Meringue Pie
Yields 1 9-inch pie

Use your favorite pie crust recipe and pre-bake in a 9-inch pie pan. To blind-bake, line the top of the crust with parchment paper and fill shallowly with dried beans or baking beads. Allow to cool while you make the filling and meringue.

1 1/2 cups sugar
6 TBSP cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups cold water
4 large egg yolks
1 TBSP lemon zest (one lemon)
2 TBSP unsalted butter
1/4 cup lemon juice (one lemon)
3 ginger snaps, finely crushed

1/3 cup sugar
8 tsp confectioner's sugar
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Sprinkle the crushed ginger snap cookies evenly across the bottom of the pie crust.

Preheat the oven to 400˚F.

In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, stir the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in the cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil (increase the heat to medium high if necessary), whisking almost constantly. This should take about 5-8 minutes. Once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat to medium low and allow to cook for another minute, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks well. Add a small amount of the hot sugar solution to the egg yolks while whisking. Repeat several times (this helps to temper the egg yolks so they won't scramble). Slowly pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan, whisking to combine. It is important not to overmix at this point, so cook about another minute while stirring slowly, then remove from the heat.

Using a wooden spoon, stir in the lemon zest and the butter. When the butter has melted, stir in the lemon juice until just combined. Pour the mixture into the pie crust shell.

While the mixture is still hot, quickly make the meringue. Mix the sugar and confectioner's sugar in a small bowl. In a large stainless steel bowl, use a hand mixer to beat the egg whites on medium speed until they are frothy. Continue beating and add the cream of tartar, then increase the speed to medium high. Beat until the egg whites form firm peaks but still appear shiny and wet. Then gradually (while continuing to beat), add the sugar mixture a tablespoon at a time over the course of 1 minute. I find it helpful to have someone help me at this point so I don't lose control of the bowl or the mixer. After the sugar is completely incorporated, add the vanilla. Beat for 30 seconds to 1 minute longer, until the whites are thick and glossy and form firm peaks. Do not overbeat!

Use a large spoon to drop the meringue in mounds around the edge of the lemon filling, then fill in the center. Use the back of your spoon to spread the meringue around. Make sure the meringue is spread out completely to the edges of the crust so that it forms a complete seal (this will help prevent weeping). Do not allow any part of the pie to be uncovered.

I also recommend using the back of the spoon to form decorative little peaks (or spikes) with the meringue. This not only creates the classic presentation of lemon meringue pie, but serves the useful purpose of indicating when your meringue is perfectly cooked (the peaks bake faster than the rest, so they turn brown more quickly).

Immediately place the pie into the oven for 6-8 minutes, or until the peaks are turning golden brown.

Cool completely before serving. I also recommend keeping the pie in a draft-free, somewhat warm area (above 65˚F), since cold air can cause your meringue to flatten out.

DO NOT REFRIGERATE! Refrigeration is death to meringue. Instead, eat your pie within two days, and you won't have to worry about spoiling.

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