This is what you call a classic American lemon meringue pie: a light, frothy-sweet baked egg foam above, a tart and creamy curd filling below, all heaped up on a delicate crumb (or traditional) pie crust. Not much not to like here in my opinion. Indeed lemon meringue consistently ranks about fifth on the list of the America’s favorite pies. It would probably rank higher if more people made this pie at home, but its reputation for fussiness scares a lot of home bakers away.
That reputation is deserved to some extent. Under-baked meringue toppings often cause weeping, and are quite common as the very center of the pie is hard to fully heat without breaking the lemon custard (which causes another kind of weeping). Large pools of syrup are commonly found in pie plates, either upon cutting or the next day after any leftovers have had a chance to sit. The process below is designed to avoid that problem, and it works very well. However it is something of a dance, so I strongly encourage you to have all of your ingredients and component parts prepared and laid out on the counter before you begin. There’ll be much less confusion that way.
Ready? Then let’s begin. Start by preheating your oven to 350 and getting everything prepped and ready for the meringue. First order of business: the cornstarch goo that will serve as your meringue stabilizer. Combine the cornstarch and the water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Like my all-wood cooktop? It’s the latest thing.
And when the mixture starts to clear and thicken, remove it from the heat. Set it aside to cool.
Now combine cream of tartar and sugar. Just a little whisking will do the trick.
Put your egg whites in the bowl of your mixer or in a whipping bowl. Yes, I know my copper egg bowl is covered with tarnish spots. I’m sure Martha Stewart’s is immaculate if you’d rather go over there. Sheesh!
With all that ready, prepare the lemon curd filling. Put the cornstarch, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan and stir them together.
Add the water and the lemon juice. Set that over medium heat and bring it to the boil.
Meanwhile, swizzle your yolks in a medium bowl. We’re about to make our curd.
Whisk the lemon juice mixture as it heats. When it starts to thicken and clarify, you know it’s time to combine it with your yolks.
Pour about half of it into the yolks to temper them (i.e. bring them gently up to temperature). Yep, it’s thick and goopy.
Whisk the mixture…
…then pour it from the bowl into the saucepan.
Set the saucepan back on the heat and whisk in the butter and lemon zest. Whisk until the thick mixture starts to boil: plop, plop, plop.
Remove it from the heat right away to prevent curdling, then set a piece of plastic wrap on top to prevent a skin from forming.
Tired yet? We’re almost at the finish line. All we need to do is whip up our meringue. Whip the whites until they’re good and frothy, then add the sugar mixture in a heavy stream…more or less all at once. The early addition of the sugar will yield a slightly denser and more stable meringue.
It’ll take almost a full minute to get to soft peaks because sugared whites take on air more slowly, but you’ll get there. When you get peaks that are tall yet still flop over — see below — add the cornstarch goo stabilizer…
…and whip another 20 seconds or so to stiff peaks.
Now to assemble. You want the filling hot for this, so depending on how long you took to whip up the meringue, you might want to give the filing another shot of heat. Remove the plastic wrap and return it to the burner until…plop plop…it starts boiling again. Whisk it as it boils for about five seconds then pour it into the shell. Hmm…this pie plate says “pumpkin” to me more than “lemon”…where IS that Martha when I need her?
Give it a quick level with a spatula…
…then dump on the meringue all at once and promptly spread it around, all the way out to the crust edges. Use broad strokes to spread it evenly and give it a little decorative swirl if you’re so inclined (I wasn’t).
Get it straight away into the preheated oven and bake it for 20 minutes until it looks about like this:
There now, that wasn’t so hectic, was it? Allow the pie to cool completely — at least two hours — before you serve it because the custard needs time to set up. The first piece or two will be a little sloppy, but after that they should hold their shape nicely.
So what about the weeping problem? Well, because this procedure is designed to heat the middle and cook it before it even goes into the oven, you should have little to worry about. The cornstarch goo stabilizer also does a great job of maintaining the integrity of the meringue without compromising the flavor or texture. Here’s what my pan looked like after the leftovers sat in the fridge overnight:
A single drop of syrup at the very tip there. Close enough for jazz, as they say. Of course any meringue pie is best on the day it’s made, but I was surprised at how well this help up in the fridge. The curd had mellowed a bit as well. Now that’s what I call breakfast!