My buddy Susan came to visit me this past weekend, which was AWESOME! The only problem…I had a good chunk of lab work to do on Friday afternoon after Susan had arrived. So I put up a white flag, emailed Caroline’s other minions, and asked if they could help me smoosh cells Friday morning. (And yes, ‘smoosh’ is a technical term.) To thank all my lab buddies for speeding up my day (and therefore getting me and Susan to happy hour by 4pm!), I obviously had to bake a ‘thank you’ pie! I decided to go with my personal favorite: Lemon Meringue!!!!
When the phrase ‘lemon meringue’ is uttered, my salivary glands immediately kick into gear. I love love love this pie. The tart lemon custard plus the salty, flaky crust AND the sweet, fluffy meringue is perfection. It’s basically the jackpot of pies. The reason I don’t bake this pie all the time is that it has a significant number of steps AND several ways to go wrong, including a flat meringue or not the right balance of lemon flavor. But here, I’ll try to describe the “protocol” in as much detail as possible, along with several pictures, for the perfect pie!
There are 3 major steps to the pie: (1) the crust, (2) the meringue topping, and (3) the lemon custard. I’ll go through them one-by-one, and then the assembly. (And give yourself at least 2 hours to make & bake the pie. then 4 hours to cool) And just a small bit of advice…get all of your ingredients ready before you start anything. For example, zest and juice your lemons, separate the egg yolks and whites (in glass or metal bowls only) and measure all of the ingredients before you start making the crust. And I realize how ridiculously long these instructions are, but that’s just the kind of pie this is…a long-winded (but eventually worth it) pie. 🙂
Step 1: The Crust
Directions: Pie crust is a difficult thing to make right if you haven’t seen it done before. So I’ll try to include a few tips here. First, measure out your flour and salt in a medium bowl and mix well with a fork. (Also, if you only have SALTED butter, reduce your salt to 3/4 t.) Next, cut in the crisco with a pastry cutter. I usually start with crisco because it is softer and easier to start blending. Basically what you’re trying cut the crisco into small bits and blend it in with the flour. Next, you’ll cut in the butter. If your butter is cold, you might want to microwave it for 5-10 seconds to soften but NOT melt the butter. The softer the butter, the easier it will be to blend. Use the pastry cutter to blend the flour and fats until you get an even consistency of pea-sized clumps. (See the left-hand pictue below.)
Next, we’ll add the ice-cold water to assemble the dough. Imagine that your cut butter & crisco mixture is divided in thirds. What you’ll do is add 1 T of water to each third, and mix individually. This method is better than just dumping water and mixing excessively because that would over-develop the gluten, making your dough chewy rather than flaky. So as the pictures below show, add 1 T of water to one section of the flour mixture at a time, and just mix gently with a fork until just combined. (Like the area in my pictures below indicated with the green arrows.) After mixing in the 2nd and 3rd tablespoon of water, use your hands to bring the dough together into a ball. Then you have your finished dough!
Next, you’ll want to flatten the dough into a round disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This chilling will allow the dough to firm just a bit so that it is easier to roll out. Meanwhile, pre-heat your oven to 400°F and make the meringue topping. Once the dough is fully chilled, roll your dough out on a floured surface. I love using my “pie crust maker” from King Arthur Flour. If you don’t have this genius little device, my tip to you is to roll your dough out on parchment paper. After rolling out the dough, place your pie tin upside down on your dough. Lift the crust from the bottom of your parchment paper (or pie crust maker), and flip! Now that your crust is in the tin, you’ll want to form the edges and poke holes in the bottom of the dough with a fork. These holes will prevent the dough from bubbling up while baking. Next, cut a round piece of parchment paper to fit on the bottom of the crust. Then bring on the beans! (Or pie weights.) Fill the bottom of your pie crust with the beans or pie weights. The weights will keep the dough flat while baking, instead of bubbling up.
Now you’re ready to bake the pie shell! Bake the crust at 400°F for 10-20 minutes, or until the edges are nicely browned. Meanwhile, make the lemon custard and reduce the heat of the oven to 350°F. Remove the crust from heat, and let it cool a little before removing the beans, about 5 minutes. Then remove the beans by lifting the parchment paper! Easy as pie. 🙂
Step 2: The Meringue
Directions: This is the most difficult part of the pie. If you haven’t made a meringue before, gooooooood luck. If you haven’t already separated your whites from your yolks, do so now. Make sure your egg whites go into a metal or glass bowl…NOT plastic. The reason plastic is not usable here is that detergent from washing tends to stick to plastic more than glass or metal. And any trace of fats or detergent will destroy the fluffiness you’re going for with the meringue. So that being said, if ANY yolk gets into your bowl of egg whites, toss it out! But if you’re very careful with separating the whites and making sure your bowl is squeaky-clean, you’ll be successful.
Now for the actual directions! Make the meringue while your pie crust is chilling. (The reason is because you want the meringue ready to go when the custard is still hot. The hot custard will start cooking the bottom of the meringue as soon as you start assembly.) First, using your whisk attachment on your electric hand or stand mixer, whip the egg whites at low speed until foamy, about 2 minutes. Then add the sugar gradually while whipping the foamy egg whites at low speed. Adding all of the sugar should take about 3 minutes (or 30 seconds per tablespoon). After all of the sugar is added, turn up the speed to low-to-medium. Continue whipping until you achieve stiff peaks*, about 5 minutes.
*Betty Crocker defines stiff peaks as “Egg whites…beaten until peaks stand up straight when beaters are lifted from the bowl while still being moist and glossy.”
Also check that your meringue is nice and smooth between your fingers. If you can feel granular sugar, keep beating.
If your egg whites never achieve stiff peaks, then you probably somehow got fat or detergent in your bowl. My advice to you would just be to start over!
Step 3: The Lemon Custard
Directions: While the pie crust is in the oven, make the custard. Pre-mix the sugar, flour, cornstarch, and salt. In a medium sauce pan, mix the lemon juice, zest, and water.
Whisk in sugar mixture, and turn on the heat to medium-high until you get a mild boil, mixing constantly. In a medium heat-safe bowl, beat the egg yolks, and slowly whisk in 0.5 C of the hot sugar-lemon mixture. (But slowly please! You don’t want scrambled eggs in your custard. Yuck!) Add the hot egg yolks back to the sugar-lemon mix on the stove. Bring the mixture back to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue heating about 1-2 minutes after boiling, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat, and let cool for about 5 minutes.
All together now: If you haven’t already, change the temperature of your oven to 350°F. While your pie crust shell is still warm, pour in the lemon custard. And while the lemon custard is still hot, put on the meringue topping. The best way to do this is to plop large spoonfuls of meringue all over the top. Then after you have covered the majority of the pie, you can try to spread the meringue for even coverage. Finally, seal the pie at the edges by smoothing the meringue into the edge of the pie crust.
Bake your assembled pie for 15 minutes, or until the meringue is nice and browned! The final challenge is to cool the pie properly. Let the pie cool completely at room temperature. Then make sure to refrigerate the pie at least 3 hours before you intend to consume it! The refrigeration will ensure that your custard is completely solidified before you cut into the pie. But now you’re ready to dig in!
So THANK YOU Cheryl, Rita, Eldon, Jenny, & Jolene for helping on Friday! This pie is for you! 😀