Today is National Lemon Meringue Pie Day… and while I don’t like to be thought of as one of those flippant followers of the trends lemon meringue pie is one of the few dishes so good it probably does deserve some kind of annual recognition.
Lemon custards and puddings have been popular since medieval times but lemons themselves gained much of their popularity as a cure for scurvy and as a condiment for fish. The acidic juices were prized for their ability to cut through the “gluey humors” abounding in seafood. This coming at a time in history when glue was made out of decaying horseflesh, the comparison calls into question the relative freshness of seafood in those days. On the verge of suffocation with a hook pierced through his cheek, who could blame any fish for being “out of humor” when caught? So the unsuspecting consumers believed the fishmongers when putrefaction was simply chalked up to the petulant disposition of fish. And another dash of lemon was added to your plate and you ate on.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that lemon custard finally met meringue. As with every recipe, the origin of the dish as we know it today is hotly debated and we must content ourselves that some mysteries will remain unsolved. The most widely distributed story is that the dish was originally created by the founder of America’s first cooking school, Mrs. Elizabeth Coane Goodfellow.
A real renaissance woman of her time, Mrs. Goodfellow owned an extremely successful pastry shop in Philadelphia for close to half a century. With the culinary equivalent of the Midas touch, her reputation as a goddess of gastronomy spread across the country. And it wasn’t long before the mothers and fathers of every eligible young socialite in Philadelphia came to Mrs. Goodfellow to teach their daughters how to “manage” themselves in the kitchen.
“Mrs. Goodfellow starts a bride off right!” or so they probably said as they ushered their unwilling daughters towards Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school. It would seem at that time in history that the marital happiness of a young couple was hinged firmly to a bride’s ability to cook. And so Goodfellow’s Cooking School became an overnight sensation.
Mrs. Goodfellow’s original recipe for lemon custard calls for the yolks of ten eggs, a resourceful woman, it is thought that she repurposed the remaining whites into a meringue which she then used to top her lemon pie. A great success, the fame of her new invention was spread by one of her more attentive students Miss Eliza Leslie who wrote down and eventually published a book of her recipes in The Lady’s Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families. Miss Leslie’s unmarried status leads us to believe that even Mrs. Goodfellow’s tutelage was not enough to snag Eliza a husband. Her inclusion of “small families” in her book’s title is a clear reminder of her inability to find love using the traditional methods of the day.
Married or single a lemon meringue pie, when made correctly, is, in my opinion, one of the best desserts ever devised. The only worry being who will be awarded the largest slice. This recipe for individual lemon meringue tarts allows the eater to enjoy their own without the worry of having to share.
Lemon Meringue Tarts
Tart Dough (Pâte Sucrée)
1 large egg yolk
1 Tablespoon heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
⅔ cups confectioner’s sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 Tablespoons butter, cold, unsalted
Whisk egg yolks, cream, and vanilla in a small bowl; pulse flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine. Add the cold butter and pulse again until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Now, with the machine running, add in the egg and process until the dough just starts to come together. Turn dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press together until a cohesive mass is formed. Press into a disk, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for at least an hour and up to four days.
Preheat the oven to 325℉ and line a sheet pan with parchment paper or Silpat if available. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll out between two pieces of parchment paper and line the tart rings. Place small squares of parchment paper in the center and fill with baking beans (weights or rice) and bake for 8 minutes. Rotate pans and bake an additional 8 minutes or until the dough is set and no longer sticks to the parchment paper. Remove the parchment and return the tart shells to the oven. Bake for an additional 12 minutes, until the dough is cooked through and has achieved a lovely golden brown. Run a knife around the edge of the tart rings to loosen the crusts and lift off the metal rings. Transfer the shells from the pan and set on a cooling rack to come to room temperature. Or if time is of the essence, place directly into the freezer to cool rapidly.
Lemon Curd (Creme au Citron)
½ teaspoon or ¾ sheet of gelatin
⅓ cup eggs
½ cup + 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
¼ cup + 3 Tablespoons of fresh strained lemon juice
1 stick + 1 Tablespoon butter, unsalted, at room temperature
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Place the gelatin in just enough water to expand and soften, (if using leaf gelatin the amount of water does not matter as the sheet will be removed before use).
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk the eggs and sugar together vigorously. Slowly incorporating the lemon juice while continuing to beat. Place the pan over medium heat and whisk slowly until the mixture begins to simmer. Cook this way for approximately three to five minutes, until thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the gelatin and butter. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and let cool. Place a sheet of plastic wrap against the surface of the curd to prevent a skin and chill in the refrigerator until set about an hour or for up to four days.
A Note on Meringue
Lemon meringues can be finicky and there are a couple of pitfalls that are common to their production. The three most frequent being beading, weeping, and shrinking. Yes, we’re still talking about lemon meringue pie.
-happens when meringue is added to a still hot lemon filling. The steam travels through the meringue and collects near the surface of the pie. As the meringue cools it contracts and these little beads rise to the surface creating a less than appetizing final look. Adding cornstarch to the egg whites while you are beating reduces some of that excess moisture and helps prevent this problem.
-happens when the meringue is added to a chilled lemon filling that is then placed in the oven to brown. This reintroduction of heat causes steam to form and condense between the layers. Pools of liquid emerge, leaving you with a rather messy soggy pie. One way to avoid this is to use a kitchen blowtorch to create that bronzed finish on your meringue eliminating the reheating of your entire pie. Another way is to scatter cake crumbs on top of your lemon filling prior to adding the meringue. These crumbs will effectively soak up the excess liquid.
In the 1960s the late Michael Field in collaboration with Dr. Paul Buck, a food scientist at Cornell University devised a method for eliminating the “weeping” common to meringues. His trick was to use a little calcium phosphate powder, a food-grade phosphate product available in drugstores and suggested by Dr. Buck.”
-happens because egg whites though able to attain a glorious height on their own, cannot retain it without help. By adding cream of tartar to your egg white meringue you reinforce their strength and their staying power effectively preventing shrinkage.
Your best bet and a surefire way to avoid all these common mistakes is to simply make an Italian Meringue. Because this meringue is already cooked before it is added to the pie it neither beads, weeps, nor shrinks!
For the Meringue
This is a meringue made in the Swiss method instead of the aforementioned Italian, but due to a chilled lemon curd and the use of a kitchen torch as opposed to an oven set on broil I have never encountered any of the beading, weeping, or shrinking common to meringues even after days of storage in the refrigerator.
Pour the egg whites and the sugar into the bowl of your standing mixer and set over a pot of simmering water, creating a makeshift bain marie. Whisk the mixture continuously until the egg whites begin to foam and have reached a temperature of 160℉. Once reached, immediately transfer to your standing mixer, or if using a hand mixer simply remove from heat and begin to beat on medium high until the whites hold stiff peaks and are thoroughly cooled.
For the Assembly
Fill the cooled tart shells with lemon curd until roughly a ¼ inch of shell remains visible. Top with a generous dollop of meringue. Using a small offset spatula, shape the meringue, being sure to pull it all the way to the edges of the crust.
Make peaks and valleys with your spatula, and when satisfied with the aesthetics of your meringue, torch it. Browning the top and emphasizing the lovely patterns you made earlier.
These little tarts keep well refrigerated in an airtight container for four to six days and like revenge, are best served cold.
“A pie can always be turned out for dessert as long as there are lemons in the house,”