Whip up a beautiful meringue pie

Key lime pie with meringue crust. BY JACK CLEMONS
August 12, 2013

A few weeks ago, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote an article about hosting a dinner party. He described favorite menus and offered advice about planning a successful evening. While many of the hints and tips were familiar suggestions, the dessert he served was something I’d never heard of before, Lemon Angel Pie. The most surprising feature (he used his mother’s recipe) was the crust – instead of pastry or graham cracker, it was made of baked meringue.

We’re not talking about the dance style associated with the Dominican Republic (that would be merengue) but the airy confection of beaten egg whites and sugar. There’s some debate about the origins of meringue, with credit given to both English and Swiss recipes dating from the 17th century as well as various assumptions of a French connection because of the name. The process of making a meringue can be considered similar to filling a balloon with air. Whipping the egg whites denatures their proteins; these proteins unfold and begin trapping air bubbles. As more and more bubbles form, the mass expands, becoming a sizeable foam. Once this transformation is fairly far along, sugar is added to stiffen the foam.

There are several rules about working egg whites into a meringue. Most meringue recipes that need a higher volume will work better when the eggs are several days old. The whites are slightly thinner in older eggs and will whip bigger and more quickly than thicker, fresher egg whites. The downside is that this structure is less stable and can collapse sooner than meringue made with fresher egg whites.

You won’t be successful with a meringue if the weather is rainy or the humidity is high: the water content in the air will not allow you to successfully create airy bubbles. Another factor that can interfere with meringue is any trace of oil or moisture in the bowls. To prevent this, make sure the bowls are metal (copper is best) or glass; plastic bowls can retain a film of grease no matter how well they have been cleaned.

Many recipes call for adding the sugar when soft peaks form. You’ll know you’ve reached that point when you lift the mixer and the foam follows the beaters, forming into peaks that curl at the tip. Stiff peaks take a little longer before the meringue remains pointy as the beaters are lifted out. To ensure the sugar is completely incorporated, it should be added very gradually, and superfine sugar is the best type to use.

For a beautiful lemon meringue pie, careful assembly is essential. Whip the meringue first and set it aside while the filling cooks. This way, the filling is quite hot when spread with the topping, allowing it to cook the bottom of the meringue, instead of forming a slippery layer between the two. The meringue should completely cover the filling and reach all the way out to attach to the crust around the edge to prevent it from shrinking during baking.

Sietsema’s recipe in the Washington Post article is a clever variation on lemon meringue pie: the meringue is baked into a substitute pie shell and then filled with layers of whipped cream and lemon custard. In the photo you can see how we reversed roles for the ingredients in typical meringue-topped key lime pie, filling a baked meringue shell with the signature flavor of Key West. This wasn’t bad, but would have worked better if it had been assembled like the lemon pie (whipped cream improves almost everything).

Meringue is either cooked at a low temperature, as in the case of the meringue crust, or for a very short time, for example when lightly browning a meringue topping. One exception to this is the aptly named Forgotten Cookies - these are baked at a very low heat for a very long time, longer than it will take for these sweet treats to vanish.

Lemon Meringue Pie

3 large eggs, separated
5 T superfine sugar
1 1/4 C sugar
5 T cornstarch
1 1/2 C water
1/2 C lemon juice
1 T grated lemon zest
3 T butter
1 prepared graham cracker crust

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place the egg whites in a mixing bowl; set the yolks aside for the filling. Beat the egg whites at medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly. Increase speed to high and continue beating until stiff peaks form; set aside. In a saucepan over medium heat, whisk sugar and cornstarch into water until dissolved. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest and egg yolks. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture starts to thicken, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Force the custard through a strainer into the prepared crust. Spread the meringue completely on the filling and over the edge of crust. Bake until the meringue is golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

Dorothy Sietsema’s Lemon Angel Pie*

3 large egg whites
3/4 t lemon juice
1 C sugar
4 large egg yolks
1/2 C sugar
1/4 C lemon juice
2 T grated lemon zest
1 C whipping cream
berries for garnish

Preheat oven to 275 F. Meringue: Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper; set aside. Combine egg whites and lemon juice in a copper or glass bowl. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks start to form. Increase speed to high and gradually add the sugar. Continue until stiff and glossy, about 8 minutes. Spread evenly in the prepared pan and bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave meringue inside to cool and dry out. Custard: Heat 3 inches of water in a large saucepan and keep barely bubbling. Whisk the egg yolks in a mixing bowl until smooth. Gradually add the sugar, whisking another 2 or 3 minutes until thicker. Whisk in the lemon juice and zest until incorporated. Seat bowl over the saucepan of hot water and whisk continuously for 5 to 8 minutes into a custard thick enough to cling to the back of a spoon. Force custard through a strainer into a bowl. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard. Place in the refrigerator until well chilled, at least 1 hour. Assembly: Beat the whipping cream on low until soft peaks form; increase speed to high and beat to form stiff peaks. Place the meringue on a serving plate. Spread half the whipped cream over the meringue. Carefully spread all of the chilled custard over the whipped cream and top with remaining whipped cream, covering the custard completely. Refrigerate for 12 hours before serving.

*Adapted from the Washington Post

Forgotten Cookies

2 egg whites
2/3 C sugar
1 C miniature chocolate chips
1 C chopped pecans
1 t vanilla
3 drops almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating continuously until stiff peaks form. Fold in remaining ingredients. Drop batter by rounded teaspoons onto prepared cookie sheet. Place pan in the oven and turn off heat. Do not open oven door. Remove cookies from the oven after 8 hours; store in airtight container.