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How-To

Lemon Meringue Pie, Taken to New Heights

Whisk brown sugar syrup into barely beaten egg whites for a mountain of meringue

Fine Cooking Issue 38
Photos: Scott Phillips
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A great lemon meringue pie offers the best of all dessert worlds: a buttery, flaky crust; a cool, tangy filling; a fluffy swirl of soft meringue—the breakfast of champions!

With any popular dessert, recipe variations abound, and lemon meringue pie is no exception. But if the number of requests we get for the recipe is any indicator, the version served at Mustards Grill is a tour de force of the lemon meringue world. The Mustards pie features a voluptuous, cream-enriched filling—the combination of both lemon and lime juices strikes just the right note of tartness. But what really distinguishes this pie is its extra-tall, velvety brown sugar meringue topping. Brown sugar being more flavorful and complex than white, the resulting meringue has more character and intensity. It’s a tasty snack all on its own.

A custard with lemon zest and lime juice has more depth of flavor

A sturdy, buttery crust is an all-important foundation of any good custard pie. The high proportion of butter makes a delicious crust that’s impervious to liquid from the filling. The crust is blind-baked and brushed with a thin layer of egg wash to further waterproof it.

A stand mixer cuts the butter into the flour gently, leaving it in the uneven-sized bits necessary for a flaky pie crust. Just put everything but the liquid in the mixer bowl, mix on the lowest speed with the paddle attachment until an uneven meal texture forms, and then add the liquid and continue mixing on low until the mixture just starts to come together. Check for the proper amount of liquid by squeezing a little bit of the dough in your hand; it should hold together without being wet and sticky.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling. Lime juice and lemon zest give this simple lemon custard nice depth of flavor; the heavy cream makes it smooth and luscious. This recipe is a lot faster and simpler than typical lemon meringue pie fillings, where eggs, sugar, and lemon juice are cooked with cornstarch and stirred constantly until thick. Here, you just whisk together the eggs and sugar—don’t let them sit together unmixed or rubbery little egg-and-sugar pellets will form—and then whisk in the lemon and lime juices and cream. To ensure a smooth and uniform filling, you strain the custard and then add lemon zest and carefully pour the filling into the baked pie shell.

Bake the custard until it barely jiggles in the center—it will continue to cook a bit after the pie is removed from the oven.

An Italian meringue made with brown sugar seems not so sweet

Say what you want about the rest of the pie, the real showstopper is the mountain of brown sugar ambrosia at its top. And as with many delicious, interesting, and worthwhile recipes, a bit of voodoo is involved in its preparation. Though it’s made in the style of an Italian meringue (meaning the sugar syrup is cooked until it reaches the firm-ball stage before being added to whisking egg whites), there are a few eccentricities about the procedure, namely the use of brown sugar in place of granulated and the stage of whipping at which the syrup is added to the whites.

I’m not in the habit of making product endorsements, but for this particular recipe, C&H golden brown sugar, which is made from pure cane sugar, seems to work best. Unfortunately, it’s only available in grocery stores west of the Mississippi. The few times that I’ve made the meringue using another brand of brown sugar, I’ve had inconsistent results (but the Fine Cooking test kitchen developed an alternate version of the recipe that works well with Domino brown sugar).

Boil brown sugar and water over high heat. When the syrup hits the firm-ball stage, start whisking the egg whites.
Pour the syrup slowly at first (it will plop more than pour), and then more quickly, into the whisking whites.

A puzzling difference between sugars

When we made Brigid’s meringue recipe using our usual brand of light brown sugar, which is Domino, it was sweeter, softer, and only half as tall as we knew Brigid’s to be. Several adjustments later, we still couldn’t produce a light, tall meringue, so we tried the original recipe with Brigid’s brand of brown sugar—C&H. This time, the meringue had great loft and it was firm yet still light.

We’re stumped as to why two brands of brown sugar (both labeled pure cane) would produce such strikingly different results. Representatives for C&H and Domino couldn’t solve the puzzle either, though they noted that brown sugars do vary in the amount of molasses, moisture, and invert sugar they contain. We found that by using more egg whites, replacing some of the brown sugar with granulated sugar, and raising the temperature of the sugar syrup, we could get a successful meringue with Domino.

The modified Domino recipe produces a meringue that’s more like a cousin to the C&H version than a twin. It tends to weep sooner, too, so if you’re using Domino, plan to serve the pie within a couple hours of making it. To try Brigid’s orignal recipe, we recommend that you use C&H. —The Fine Cooking test kitchen and editors.

In the usual preparation of Italian meringue, the whites are whipped almost to the firm-peak stage before the sugar syrup is added very slowly, with the mixer starting on medium-low speed. The meringue then deflates somewhat as the hot syrup cooks the whites, and it’s whipped until it’s completely cool. In this recipe, the egg whites are whipped only until they’re frothy before the sugar syrup is added, slowly at first, and then quickly, with the mixer on high speed. By adding the syrup quickly and before the whites have much volume, the meringue develops volume as it cooks, giving it greater loft. The meringue is shaped while still warm, and then it sets as it cools, leaving you with a tall, dramatic, and beautiful meringue that’s unusually light in the mouth. A few things to remember about making this meringue:

When the meringue forms firm but not stiff peaks (it will still be warm), pile it high on the center of the pie.

Have everything you need ready before beginning the meringue—a spatula for forming the dome, a spoon for making decorative waves, etc.

Whites develop better volume if they are at room temperature; separate the eggs and let the whites sit out, covered, for a couple of hours.

Use an accurate candy thermometer for the sugar syrup and always test it in boiling water before each use (at sea level, water boils at 212°F).

 Shape the warm meringue into a tall dome, pressing out large air pockets without deflating the foam.

When you add the sugar syrup, start slowly and then quickly add the rest. The mixture will look hopelessly wrong (watery and brown), but it whips up nicely in about three minutes.

The whites will form peaks when they’re ready, but they will still look smooth and pliant, and the meringue will be quite warm. It’s best to err on the side of underwhipping, only because the meringue will start to cool and become harder to shape.

Work quickly with the meringue once you have it on the pie. This is one of the few pastry recipes that actually works better in a warm kitchen. The warmer it is, the more slowly the meringue will cool and become unworkable.

A regular soupspoon is all you need to spike the meringue. Work quickly, before it cools and sets.

Once you form the meringue mountain and create decorative swirls and peaks with the back of a spoon, the last step is to brown it. If you happen to have a torch lying around the house, you can use it to lightly caramelize the whole meringue. If you are sans torch, brown the meringue under the broiler.

Keep the finished pie in the refrigerator so the custard stays cool. The meringue is at its best when served within a few hours; after several hours, it will start to weep and break down.

A kitchen torch is ideal for browning the meringue evenly, but a flash under the broiler will also suffice.

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