According to my friend over in Turriff Hall, this is the year of the pie. Since his ardent blogging on pies inspired me to begin my own blog, I have decided to pay tribute with a lemon meringue pie.
Now I've been dreaming about making one of these suckers for a while, ever since I made myself hurt on a personal-sized one at M:BRGR, right downtown, here in Montreal. That was a few years ago now and I've had some fun making meringues, pastries, and lemon curds for other sundry applications, but I surprisingly hadn't put them all together.
This recipe is for a relatively tart and sweet lemon meringue pie, which is best served with an espresso or strong cup of tea, whose bitterness will cut the flavour and refresh the palate. An excellent pie will have a crust that remain flaky beneath all the curd, it will have a firm curd, and a meringue that is light but well-constructed.
Lemon Meringue Pie
Photo: Maria Giuliani
Step 1: Crust
The key to any excellent pie is its crust. It should be flaky, not crumbly, and meaty (umami-y). The key to your meat flavour is an excellent lard or suet. Yes, suet and lard, and not the kind you get in the store, if you can help it. Go out and buy yourself a nice chunk of pork from the butcher, render the fat from the skin and keep the chicharones for your tacos. I guarantee that you won't regret it.
The following crust recipe is for 1 pie crust, I saved the other for a sugar pie rainy day. It's not worth making 1 crust at a time.
Makes 2 crusts
2 1/2 cups flour (preferably low gluten or cake flour)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar optional
1/4 cup ice water + a bit more
3/4 cup lard or suet
1 tbsp vinegar optional
Before you begin anything, fill up a cup of water with tons of ice cubes to get it super cold, this will help your hard from getting soft and melting later on. Sift together the flour, salt, and sugar. Using a knife or a pastry cutter, cut in the lard, be patient and take the extra time to really cut it in and not smush it in. When the flour is chunky, chocolate chip sized, stop cutting it in. Combine the vinegar and the water. This vinegar, by the way, is used to inhibit gluten formation, but if you've used a low gluten flour you don't really need it. Sprinkle the water on top, while lightly tossing the chunks, so that you incorporate the liquid without continuing to work the lard into the flour. I've deliberately set this recipe to have too little liquid. I want you to slowly add a bit more water (1-3 tbsps), until you've got enough to form the dough into a ball without it being sticky. Humidity really affects flour, so you will never need the same amount.
Once you've formed the dough into 2 balls, place them in the fridge for an hour before rolling them out to line your pie plate.
Cook the crust at 400F until lightly browned
Step 2: The Curd
The curd! This is the easy part. Indeed, the hardest part about making the curd is choosing the best lemons in the grocery. I like to pick big hard ones that are fresh and ripe, with a knobby skin that I know will have a a thick zest. I also use an aged clarified butter - the Indian brand "Desi Ghee" will do the trick or any cultured butter, clarified or not.
2 cups sugar
4 big lemons or 3/4 cup lemon zest; 1 cup lemon juice
1 cup butter
Toss the eggs and sugar into a non-reactive sauce pan on a medium heat (stainless steel will do; aluminum will not) and whisk them up. Add in the lemon zest, juice, and butter, whisk them up as well. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir for about a minute, until the eggs begin to thicken. Strain and store in the fridge immediately. When you're putting the curd into the crust, it should be quite thick and it will be close to the consistency you can expect in your final pie. So, if it's thin and runny you will have a soggy crust and it will be best, old boy, to put it back on the burner.
Step 3: The Meringue
Oh meringue. There are so many different kinds of you and I've had so much fun with you in so many different and titillating ways. Friends, if you really want to impress your guests, hunt down a meringue recipe for Italian Meringue and serve your pies in individual portions topped with freshly made meringue. It should be a cooked and stable meringue. It will be pillowy and soft and it you will feel sweetly melancholic as your fork thrashes at the end of your fingers as you desperately and frantically try to paw as much into your mouth as fast as you can.
Today I used a French Meringue, the traditional, if you will. Now, you don't want a meringue that sweats and is grainy because the sugar isn't well incorporated, or that shrinks and bleed beads of moisture because it was overcooked, or that is flat from under or overbeating. So cooking it is an art in itself and requires a careful eye. The fun thing about meringue is that you can have tons of family fun licking beaters and artfully swirling designs onto the top of your pie
4 egg whites (1/2 cup of egg white)
3/4 cup sugar (superfine, like caster sugar is best, for better incorporation)
1/8 tsp lemon juice
Blast the egg whites away in your mixer until they're a thick foam and have tripled or so in volume. Then begin to add the sugar with a tablespoon until stiff peaks form. This exercise of incorporating the sugar should take about 3 minutes all told. DO NOT OVER BEAT YOUR MERINGUE.
Use to coat your curd filled crust immediately.
Remember, cold whites separate better, but warm whites foam better. Separate them cold and then warm them to room temperature.
If your meringue doesn't foam, you probably got a speck of egg yolk in it didn't you? Even the tiniest drop of oil will cause the foam to flop. This is why it's always best to use a metal bowl -- no residues.
Looking to play with your meringue? Experiment with different amounts of sugar for different levels of firmness (more sugar) and softness (less sugar). I've seen recipes call for a few tablespoons of sugar for 3 egg whites, but I find it results in a poorly structured and too airy product. I like a denser meringue. If I wanted a soft meringue then I'd be going soft and dense with an Italian meringue and I'd blow your socks off.
Step 4: The Bake
All ovens are different. I cooked mine at 375F (350F convection, really) for 20 minutes. The meringue had a lovely colour and had just barely finished cooking through -- a poke test with a toothpick found dampness only near the very bottom.
Step 5: Cool it down bud
If you cut your pie before it is cooled, you will be faced with a lake of soupy curd and will be terribly shamed and lose much face.