Cookin' Pie With s.e.: Lemon Meringue

It seems that people think of this culinary delight as a special occasion pie. I say that you never need a special occasion for pie.
Publish date:
February 7, 2012
cooking, food, pie

There are few things on this Earth I like quite as much as lemon meringue pie. Tart. Tangy. Hint of sweetness. Frothy topping. Can optionally be made with things other than lemon filling, if you’re in that kind of mood – I’ve made blood orange meringue pie, for example, and it was pretty darn good. But I keep returning to Meyer lemons, which are tart without being brassy. Oh, and delicious.

When I talk about my love for lemon meringue, people always go “Oh, it’s so good, but I almost never have it.” It seems that people think of this culinary delight as a special occasion pie. I say that you never need a special occasion for pie.

I’m not gonna lie -- making lemon meringue pie does require a lot of dishes and some rapid kitchen ballet, but it’s not that difficult, and it’s totally worth the effort.

So, let’s talk lemon meringue pie. Sorry about the lack of kitchen action shots, but I made this at seven in the morning for a party and the light was abysmal, and also I live alone and neither of my cats can operate a camera, and also I didn’t want to get pie goo all over my beloved Canon.

Some Pie Basics

One of the things that makes lemon meringue pie a bit challenging is that ideally you want to prebake the crust, scoop hot filling into the hot crust, and immediately top it with meringue before slamming it in the oven. This ensures that everything cooks through, and you get a nice creamy meringue, non-soggy crust, and completely cooked meringue. It also means that you kind of need to do some planning ahead to get the timing right.

Lay out all the ingredients and implements you’re going to need ahead of time (more about these in a moment). Make the crust first and pop it in the oven with some pie stones to preheat while you cook the filling, and while the filling is cooking, make your meringue. That way everything will be ready to go at the same time. If you have kitchen assistants, you can delegate tasks. Make sure to stay out of each other’s way.

Pie crust is surrounded with mythology, but, honestly, it’s not as difficult as people make it out to be. The main thing is that you don’t want to overwork it; combine the ingredients just enough to make them pull together, and then stop. You can also totally cheat and use storebought crust if that’s how you want to roll: no judgments!

Meringue filling is pretty basic; the thing to watch out for is keeping the heat moderate while you cook it, and stirring frequently with a soft spatula. Make sure to really scrape the bottom and sides of the pan as you stir to prevent sticking and burning as well as fully integrating everything. It helps to use a heavy pan to control the heat better, but it’s not required. If you are using a thinner pan, you might want to set the heat slightly below medium, especially on an electric stove.

Meringue is also fairly straightforward. I recommend using a stabilized meringue (more about this in a minute too) because it weeps less and keeps longer. The important thing to keep in mind is that your mixing bowl needs to be spotlessly cleanbecause grease and water can interfere with it. Also, it sometimes feels like beating it takes forever, but it will come together, I promise.

When you apply the meringue to the pie, start by making a ring around the crust to anchor it to the edges. Then fill it in. This prevents unsightly gaps. No one likes unsightly gaps, am I right?

Let’s Get In the Kitchen and Make Some Pie!

You’re going to need some supplies:

  • Two mixing bowls
  • Cup and spoon measures
  • Beaters, either hand or electric
  • Two spatulas
  • A zester
  • A lemon juicer/citrus reamer1
  • One pie plate
  • A rolling pin
  • Mixing/stirring spoons
  • A heavy pan (ideally!) for cooking the meringue
  • Pie stones (or beans, etc), which are optional but really help when prebaking crust
  • A small bowl with cover

...and some ingredients:

For the crust (Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”)

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 5 ½ tablespoons butter, shortening, lard, whatever you use in crust
  • 2 ½ tablespoons cold water (you may need to use a tad more) with a pinch of sugar and a dash of salt mixed in

For the filling (Adapted from “The Joy of Cooking”)

  • 1 ¼ cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice, preferably fresh
  • 3 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 4 egg yolks (save those whites!)
  • 2 tablespoons butter cut into small chunks

For the meringue (Adapted from “The Joy of Cooking”)

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 4 egg whites (aren’t you glad you saved those?!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup sugar, superfine or confectioner’s

Start with your crust: In a mixing bowl, cut the butter into the flour and smash it with the back of a spoon into small flakes. Slowly add the water/sugar/salt mixture until it pulls together into a loose ball. Using the heel of your hand, smear it against the sides of the bowl a few times, which will make it light and flaky. Pull it together into a ball.

You can make your crust in advance and chill it -- the reason many recipes have you refrigerate dough before you roll it out is not because something magical happens in the fridge, but because if you’ve just worked it and things are warm, it can get overworked when you roll it out, in addition to being messy. You can also just make it when you’re in pie-making mode. You can use your judgment here.

Roll your dough out, plop it into a lightly buttered and floured pie pan, stick some pie stones in there, and prebake at 325° for around 10 minutes while you get ready to rumble.

Start by making the cornstarch mixture to stabilize your meringue so it will be ready to go when you need it. Mix the cornstarch, sugar, and water together in your pan and heat on medium, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns translucent and pulls together. Scrape it off into your small bowl and cover with plastic wrap (or a plate, whatever). Set aside.

This little mixture will help your meringue stay up without collapsing. Think of it as the support garment of lemon meringue pie, keeping things ... perky under trying circumstances.

Take the same saucepan and start your filling (no need to wash it, since you’re about to add more water and cornstarch). Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt, slowly adding the water, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Watch out for clumping! Plop in those egg yolks, add the butter, and then put the heat on medium and stir frequently. The mixture will be liquidy for a while and it will abruptly thicken. Turn off the heat at that point.

While that’s happening, work on that meringue. Beat your egg whites until they’re fluffy before adding the vanilla, cream of tartar, and sugar. As stiff peaks2 start to appear, slowly beat in the stabilizing mixture. Ideally at this point your pie filling is done and your crust is happily prebaked.

Get those pie stones out (really, I forgot once), pour the filling in, promptly anchor meringue to the sides and fill it in, and then put that beauty in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes in your handily preheated oven, until the meringue just starts to turn golden, and then pull it out to cool on a rack. When it’s completely cool, you can refrigerate and then serve cold or at room temp. It lasts around three days in the fridge, thanks to the stabilized meringue.

Then you can clean up the unholy mess in your kitchen you just made and ponder how exactly you managed to get meringue on the ceiling.

1. I just like saying “reamer.” Return

2. Heh heh. Return