When I was a teenager, Nanna offered to teach me how to make one of my favorite desserts -- lemon meringue pie. Surprisingly, her filling started with a box of lemon pudding mix. I later learned from my mom that a few of Nanna's recipes remained a monument to the 1950s and '60s, a time when she and many other women readily embraced (what were then) novelty conveniences like Jell-O and canned soups.
Even though I always gobbled down Nanna's lemon meringue pie, I prefer making my filling from scratch; I especially love using homemade lemon curd. This is different from traditional lemon pie filling, which relies on corn starch (or flour) as the thickening agent. Lemon curd's viscosity comes from the combination of eggs, sugar, and lemon juice being cooked over low heat -- almost like a custard without the dairy. Butter is often stirred in at the end, off heat. The result is so much better than a regular lemon pie filling: the curd is tart and fresh but so creamy from the butter. The lemon flavour just pops in a way that it doesn't in traditional pie fillings. I know Nanna would more than approve of it.
Learning how to make a proper meringue was the real eye-opener of baking a lemon meringue pie with Nanna. I remember patiently manning the stand mixer, adding ingredients when Nanna told me to do so, and asking her to check whenever I thought stiff peaks had formed. Once I learned what stiff peaks actually looked like, I dolloped the resulting opalescent fluff onto the hot lemon filling. With Nanna's guidance, I then quickly spread the meringue all the way to the crust, taking care to make sure there were no gaps before I finished baking it.
When the timer buzzed just a little later, I was horrified to see that my meringue pie emerged from the oven looking completely different from Nanna's. "I did something wrong! The meringue doesn't have any of the pretty beads that yours does Nanna!"
Shaking her head and laughing, Nanna was proud to tell me I had done it exactly right... "You don't want meringue to have those beads. You did it better than Nanna!"
Only slightly mollified at the thought that I did something better than Nanna, I pouted anyway, the way only a teenage girl can, because I thought Nanna's meringue pie was beautiful, beading and all, and mine didn't have any. It might have taken a few years of watching the Food Network before I was convinced that I really shouldn't want my meringue to "weep" -- that's the term for those syrupy beads I was so fond of.
But remember, even if your meringue doesn't come out perfectly, chances are, it will taste great like Nanna's always did. And if you're really lucky, you might even fool an impressionable child that meringue is supposed to have those pretty little beads!
Lemon Meringue Tart
Crust and curd adapted from Thomas Keller via The Cooking of Joy and meringue adapted from The Joy of Baking
This lemon meringue tart would be great with any number of crusts --- a sweet pastry crust, a graham cracker crust, or you could even lose the tart shell and make (or buy) a traditional pie crust. This pine nut crust is quite good, and can be made and baked one day ahead of time. Breaking the recipe up by having the tart shell done ahead of time makes the rest of the process a lot easier.
Yield: 1 tart (serves 8)
Pine Nut Crust*
2 cups pine nuts
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
*Please beware that this recipe makes enough for 3 tart crusts, but the extra dough can be frozen for up to a month.
1 lemon, reserved for zesting
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, cold
2 large egg yolks, cold
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, about 3-4 lemons
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter
1/2 cup sugar, preferably superfine
Make the Pine Nut Crust:
Butter and flour a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Keep it in the fridge until needed.
Pulse the pine nuts in a food processor a few times. Add sugar, salt, and flour and continue to pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer (alternatively, you could mix this by hand).
Add butter, egg, and vanilla and mix until well combined. Divide the dough into 3 equal parts and then wrap each piece in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the tart pan and one package of pine nut dough from the refrigerator. Use your finger tips to evenly spread the chilled dough up the sides of the tart pan and then along the bottom. Prick the tart crust with a fork to prevent it from puffing up. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until it is golden brown.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool while you make the filling; or allow it to cool all the way and then cover with plastic wrap and store overnight.
Make the Curd:
If the crust was made ahead of time, be sure to preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit; otherwise, just leave it on.
Use a vegetable peeler to remove the zest from one lemon. If some of the white pith is also removed, use a paring knife to trim it away from the rest of the lemon peels; discard the white pith. Place the trimmed peels in the bowl of a food processor. Cover with sugar and process until the zest is very finely minced and well incorporated into the sugar.
Bring about 2 inches of water to a boil in a medium pot. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, yolks, and sugar/zest mixture in a large metal bowl for about 1 minute, or until the mixture is smooth. Once water is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, and place the bowl over the pot, ensuring that the water does not actually touch the bowl. Continue to whisk the mixture for another 2-3 minutes, occasionally turning the bowl for even heating, until the mixture becomes thick and frothy. Add about 1/3 of the lemon juice and continue to whisk until it thickens again. Add another 1/3 of the lemon juice. Whisk until the mixture thickens yet again, and then add the remaining juice. Vigorously whisk the mixture until it becomes light in color and thick enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon. The whole cooking process should take about 8-10 minutes.
Promptly remove the curd from the heat, but keep the bowl over the water. Whisk the butter in one piece at a time, waiting until each piece is fully incorporated before adding the next. If you are concerned about lumps, strain the curd through a fine mesh sieve (I didn't do this). Pour the warm curd into the tart crust and place the pan on a baking sheet. Bake the tart for 10 minutes. The curd should not brown during this time.
Make the Meringue:
As soon as the tart is in the oven, begin your meringue. Using a whisk attachment of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tarter and continue beating until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, about one tablespoon at a time, until stiff peaks form and the mixture is thick and glossy.
Dollop the meringue by the spoonful over the hot curd, starting from the outside edge of the tart. Spread the meringue gently and evenly, making sure that it attaches to the crust on all sides so that there are no gaps. If desired, make decorative swirls in the meringue. Return the tart to the oven for another 10-15 minutes, rotating it halfway through for even browning. Remove when golden.
Transfer to wire rack and cool to room temperature. Serve.
-You can make your own superfine sugar by putting regular granulated sugar in the food processor and pulsing it until it becomes powdery.
-According to Cook's Illustrated, beading on the top of meringue is caused by overcooking, so take care not to leave the it in the oven too long.
-The puddling that sometimes occurs between the curd and meringue is caused by the bottom of the meringue being undercooked. This is why timing is crucial and you want to apply the meringue to a piping hot curd, fresh out of the oven.
-Finally, it's important to make sure there are no gaps between the meringue and the crust so that the meringue doesn't shrink in the oven.