by HILLARY MOSES MOHAUPT
I made my first lemon meringue pie in the tiny kitchen of our third-floor apartment just beyond Philadelphia’s city limits. From the window over the butcher’s block, we can see Philadelphia’s tallest buildings scraping the sky, and on overcast days, when the skyscrapers are lost among the clouds, it’s easy to putter around the kitchen, rolling out dough on the table, cooking up pie filling on the stove, and toasting meringue peaks in the oven.
The first few years of my baking hobby (let’s say the first decade, really), lemon meringue pie seemed like the ultimate dessert, a feat only accomplished by professionals and a few amateur bakers who’d gotten their hands on a magic wand. Soon after we moved to the little apartment with a view of Philadelphia, however, I learned that lemon meringue pie just takes a little motivation and a careful attention to detail. In fact, lemon meringue pies can be forgiving, as you long know how have to correctly conjure each distinct layer – the crust, lemon custard, meringue – according to your own vision and taste. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to get this beauty right; you don’t even have to have counter space.
The Romans produced the first pie recipe – for a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie. Pies spread throughout the empire and in the twelfth century appeared in England, where the crusts were first referred to as “coffyns,” meaning basket or box, since the crust served primarily as a sturdy container for whatever filling (often meat) the baker tucked inside. English tradition credits Queen Elizabeth I with the first cherry pie. American colonists brought their pies to their new world and by the time of the revolution in the late eighteenth century, pie enthusiasts were calling them “crusts” instead of “coffyns.” (1)
There’s some debate about the origins of the lemon meringue pie on the global pie stage, but because I can see the skyline from my kitchen and because I like to imagine a woman singlehandedly altering the course of American cookery, let’s start with Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow, a Philadelphia widow who ran a successful bakery and cooking school in the early 19th century and who introduced the pie to the wealthy families of the City of Brotherly Love. Lemon meringue pie quickly became a favorite in the South, where lemons are plentiful, and recipes for the pie were common in the late 19th century. (You can buy Becky Diamond’s Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School here.)
A very complete history of the lemon meringue pie is available here.
Many people look to America’s Test Kitchen for advice on creating the best dishes, but since ATK’s online recipes are behind a pay wall and since I’m a historian, I always turn to Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, which has been updated several times since its first publication in 1896.
Fannie Farmer’s cookbook doesn’t specify what kind of crust to use with the lemon meringue pie – simply “a pre-baked pie shell.” Buy one if you must, or make one from scratch according to what you love best about crusts. It’s essential not to overwork or overhand the dough (the Pie Council – that exists! – says your shortening/butter should be coated with flour mixture, not blended with it). It’s also important to keep your butter (or other fat) cold. Make your bowls and utensils cold by popping them in the freezer or filling your bowl with cold water; some say you should also cool off your hands before working with the dough, but that requires more commitment. Be careful not to overwork the dough. (2)
For pre-baked pie shells, prick the bottom of the dough all over with a fork and bake in a preheated 425-degree over for 16-18 minutes.
An accomplished baker once advised me to add a spoonful of vinegar to my piecrust, to make it nice and flaky. I haven’t tried it yet – call me skeptical, but there’s no vinegar in any of Fannie Farmer’s piecrust recipes – but plenty of people (including butter AND flour purveyors) on the Internet think this is a perfectly suitable technique. If King Arthur says it, it must be true. (3)
Some recipes call for lemon peel in the pudding. Do so if you like the taste; the pudding will be sweeter without.
Somewhere on the Internet is a recipe that calls for adding a few drops of yellow food coloring, thanks to Betty Crocker, the queen of mid-20th century kitchen industrialization and the patron saint/bane of modern homemaking. Don’t do it. Love what a plain old regular lemon will do for you and your pie.
The meringue topping is what distinguishes lemon meringue pie from other lemon pies, and it just might be the most difficult part, given that America’s Test Kitchen focused on it in their experiments:
We wanted to develop a lemon meringue pie recipe that gave us a meringue that didn’t break down and puddle on the bottom or “tear” on top. We realized that the puddling underneath the meringue was from undercooking. The beading on top of the pie was from overcooking. We discovered that if the filling was piping hot when the meringue was applied, the underside of the meringue would not undercook; if the oven temperature was relatively low, the top of the meringue wouldn’t overcook. Baking the pie in a relatively cool oven also produced the best-looking, most evenly baked meringue. (4)
“Meringue is nothing more than egg whites and sugar and nothing short of magical,” writes Dorie Greenspan, author of Baking: From My Home to Yours. (5)
The most efficient way to beat the egg whites into peaks is to use a stand mixer, but a copper bowl, a balloon whisk, and a little elbow grease also gets the job done. (Greenspan notes that “copper is best for whites—the chemical reaction between the copper and the whites increases the amount of air you can get into the whites.”) I also recommend using a rotary egg beater – not because it’s any more efficient than a whisk (it isn’t, not really), but because, unlike using a whisk or a stand mixer, you can watch the egg whites stiffen. In other words, I think rotary egg beaters are more precise.
Greenspan has a slew of meringue-making tips:
--old eggs beat better than fresh ones
--separate the eggs while they are cold, but wait until the whites are room temperature to whip them
--stabilize the egg whites with a pinch of salt, cream of tartar or fresh lemon juice
--don’t overdo it: whip the whites just until they are smooth and glossy
It’s important to keep the meringue from weeping and shrinking. One way to decrease the likelihood of those unsavory occurrences is to be sure the meringue is touching the pie crust all the way around. However, the 1996 edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook suggests simply consuming the pie within two days, and, frankly, this seems like the best advice.
If you need an excuse to eat a whole pie in one day: Lemon Meringue Pie Day is August 15.
illustrations by Killian Czuba