by Tim Czerwienski
While traditional Thanksgiving pies tend to be gourd-, nut- or cut hand fruit–based, I would contend that with yet another cold, dreary, interminable winter right around the corner, Thanksgiving is when we need a bright, sunshiny lemon meringue pie the most. Outside of the clearly necessary psychic boost it imparts, the reason I’ve been making lemon meringue pie since I was a kid is that it’s secretly very easy, but the folks who eat it can’t help but gush about how crafty and skilled a baker you are. For an insecure middle child desperately scratching for attention and familial approval at every opportunity, this fact is crucial, and Thanksgiving is the biggest stage of all. Maybe it’ll work for you!
This recipe calls for a baked 9-inch piecrust. If you’re a diehard who insists on preparing your own homemade crust, knock yourself out. [Ed. Note: SIGH, YES, COME ON PEOPLE.] I’ve always found making crust from scratch to be a joyless bit of drudgework. Pre-made crust works fine here, and anyway, the pie is supposed to be the star of the show. After you’ve baked the crust, set your oven to 350, and if you’ve got a metal mixing bowl, throw it in the freezer. (If you don’t have a metal bowl, don’t worry! Any bowl will work. I just mention the freezer trick because it sounds like a savvy pro tip.)
The prep work is where the magic happens for this pie, so put a little heart into, won’t you? Separate three eggs, and toss the whites in the fridge. Do you have a citrus zester? Congratulations! Blow the dust off it and zest two lemons. The rest of us will make due with a fine grater. Do you have a third lemon? Zest it! There’s probably such a thing as too much zest, but I don’t know anything about it. I’m a big believer in a tart, lemony filling, and the two ways to achieve that are more zest, or more lemon juice. Go the juice route, and you run the risk of making your filling too drippy. Plus, zest is just a fun word to say. Zest! You will need to juice those lemons, though. Enough to yield a quarter of a cup.
In a pot, stir together a cup of sugar, a quarter cup of corn starch, a cup and a half of water, and the three egg yolks until you’ve got a smooth, goopy, eggy paste. (True story: I made this pie once, and for whatever reason, no matter how much I stirred, I couldn’t get the mixture to smooth out. Of course, I just figured the magic of the oven would solve all my problems, and it wasn’t until I was pouring the filling into the crust before I dipped my finger in and tried it out. It tasted like a combination of dish detergent and snow melt; I had mixed up the two unmarked jars of white granular powder in my mom’s kitchen and used a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar. The lesson, as always, is to use the actual ingredients, and also not be an idiot.)
Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring the whole time, and keep it there for a minute. Take it off the stove, and mix in the lemon juice, zest and a tablespoon of butter. Pour it evenly into your already-baked crust, and set it aside.
Here comes what could potentially be the most frustrating part of the whole endeavor. When making meringue, you’re really at the mercy of the elements. If it’s rainy or otherwise humid outside, you’re pretty much doomed to a limp, droopy meringue. (I’m sure high-pressure systems or something like that are also involved. It’s very mysterious, meringue.) If you have any choice in the matter, you should be making this pie on a dry, bright, cloudless day. If you don’t have a choice, throw caution to the wind, tempt fate and hope for the best. It’ll still taste good, I promise! If you put your mixing bowl in the freezer earlier, grab it and beat the egg whites on high speed with a hand mixer until they’re nice and frothy. Under no circumstances should you be beating these eggs manually. There’s too much at stake! Once you’ve got a good egg foam going, very gradually mix in a third of a cup of sugar. (The better you get the sugar mixed in, the less susceptible your meringue will be to whatever humidity is in the air.) The cookbooks will tell you to beat until “stiff peaks form.” You’ll know when this happens. It’ll be like seeing the Platonic ideal of meringue in your bowl. It will be beautiful.
With a rubber spatula, spread the meringue on top of the lemon filling, starting from the edge of the crust and working inward. You’ll want a tight meringue seal on the crust. Some people will try to make some fancy little peaks and patterns in the meringue before putting it in the oven. If you dare, you’ve got more courage than me. I’m pretty clumsy, and peaks are a high-risk move, so I usually wind up settling for a competent, workmanlike, smooth top. Put it in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping an eye on the meringue. Once it starts getting a golden brown touch, it’s done. Let it cool on the counter for a half hour, and then chill it in the fridge for a few hours, preferably in an airtight container. (Remember the humidity?) Serve it cold, preferably the same day you baked it, and do your best to enjoy it, because it’s probably going to snow tomorrow.
Tim Czerwienski is trying to be a writer and editor in Boston. He blogs here.
Illustration by Susie Cagle.