Margaret made the Lemon Meringue Pie every Thanksgiving. I only got to spend a couple of those with her. But each time she’d shuffle proudly into my mother-in-law’s kitchen (her daughter) with her homemade pie saying something like, “Isn’t that your favorite pie, Kevin?” It was a rhetorical question. It was everyone’s favorite pie at the Anderson Family Thanksgiving.
This post was created in an ongoing partnership with Wolf and the Reclaim the Kitchen initiative. In this two part series, we’ll be zooming in on specific cooking techniques to make the kitchen (and Lemon Meringue Pie) feel more doable. For more kitchen resources, visit ReclaimtheKitchen.com.
Kev flew home at the start of the year to say goodbye to his grandma. Margaret was 95. She was also a lot like you and me. She used real maple syrup and made jam, pies, and dinner from scratch.
Who would make the lemon meringue pie this year?
With a little nudge from the Reclaim the Kitchen mantra, I signed up to make it—a pie I had never attempted, a pie with very high stakes, a pie that meant a whole lot to the Anderson family. By the looks of Grandma’s brief recipe card, you’d assume it was easy (see similar recipe here). But if you’ve ever made a Lemon Meringue Pie before, you know otherwise. I’m so glad we’re not constrained to a 3″ x 5″ recipe card anymore, because this recipe needs a little more real estate.
In true last minute fashion (on time if you ask me), my mother-in-law and I crowded around her tablet learning to make Margaret’s pie the night before the big meal. We had a pie to show for Thanksgiving. And it disappeared happily. But my mother-in-law had to talk me out of remaking that pie several times. It wasn’t as good as it could be—the process or the final product.
We landed back in Minneapolis, and I’ve been working on that pie ever since. The Lemon Meringue pie comes with a complicated set of issues. The crust—will it be soggy from the acidic lemon filling by the time it’s served? The filling—will it set up or spill out upon slicing? The meringue, oh the meringue. Will it dry out? Will it collapse? Will it weep? Will it torch? Will it slice? Will it slip off the pie altogether? AND, is it possible to make the night before serving?
YES. After so many tests, it is possible to have all it. But you have to break some of the rules to do it.
I’ve been told Margaret would hold her breath while slicing the pie every year. She never knew what was inside. If it turned to soup, she’d just throw up her hands and say next year. It wouldn’t ruin her like this pie nearly ruined me. I wish Margaret was here to try this one. It’s a bit non-traditional, which might have made her wince, but it’s so reliable and best when made in advance. It’s even made a Lemon Meringue Pie lover out of me.
A special thanks to Zoë Fançois for fielding all of my 911 meringue texts. The kitchen can be a complicated place. And some recipes can sip the confidence right out of you. Make sure you have people in your court, like the Reclaim the Kitchen site, where you’ll find everything from braising videos to basic cooking techniques, tips, and tricks. I love this resource of a site. It’s a lot like my book coming out—a practical guide for making the kitchen more doable. Because sometimes it feels impossible. For a very in-depth, dare I say fool-proof, Lemon Meringue Pie recipe see below.
Lemon Meringue Pie
This non-traditional Lemon Meringue Pie boasts a crispy, buttery crust. A lemony filling that sets up confidently. And a simple, fool-proof meringue that pairs perfectly with the filling. Best of all, it can (and should) be made ahead of time. It's best this way. You'll want to make sure you have a couple special tools for this pie: 10-inch removable bottom tart pan with a 2-inch height, Pastry Torch, Butane Fuel, and 2 lb. of pie weights
- 1/2 c. + 2 tbsp. all-purpose unbleached flour
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, cold
- 1/4 c. cold water
- 6 large egg yolks (save 2 whites for the meringue)
- 1/2 c. lemon juice (about 3 lemons, save zest for the meringue)
- 1 1/2 c. water
- 1 c. sugar (see notes)
- 1/4 c. organic cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 c. sugar
- 1/3 c. water
- 2 large egg whites (reserved from filling)
- 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
- 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- zest from 1 lemon (optional)
Make the crust 1 day in advance. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the butter into skinny shreds (as if you were cutting thin slices of cheese) and toss them into the flour mixture to coat. Using your hands, quickly incorporate the butter into the flour until the butter resembles pea-sized crumbles. Pour in half the ice-cold water. Use a large fork to bring the dough together. Continue adding water until dough holds together. Form into a rough rectangle.
On a lightly floured surface, roll or press the dough out into a rectangle (about 6 x 4-inches). Cut the dough in half and stack, adding any random pieces in between. Press out again and repeat 3 more times. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 20 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out to 13 1/2-inches in diameter. (The crust will be on the thinner side. This is important for maintaining a sturdy crust that wont soften after the filling is added.) Fold in quarters and place in a 10-inch removable bottom tart pan with a 2-inch height. (I'm a believer that all pie should be made in a removable bottom tart pan for easy slicing. Or, they need to start making removable bottom pie tins.) Unfold and center within the pan. Trim excess. Place pan in the freezer to chill for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425°F. Before baking, prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork to keep from bubbling. Line with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. (Pie weights are sold in too small of quantities in my opinion. Buy two bags of them for adequate amounts.) Place pan on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment and pie weights, and bake for 4 minutes more to allow the bottom to finish cooking. Set aside at room temperature. It’s normal for the crust to shrink a bit. This can be made a day in advance and stored uncovered.
Make the lemon filling at least 5 hours in advance. Juice the lemons and set aside. If you decide to use the optional zest into the meringue, zest one lemon first before juicing, and store covered. (The lemon zest helps to even out the sweetness of the meringue and carry the tartness throughout.) Separate the yolks and set aside, reserving 2 whites for the meringue. (Note: cold eggs are easier to separate than room temperature eggs. Make sure no yolk (fat) gets into the egg whites as this will inhibit a proper meringue from forming.)
In a medium saucepan, add the water, sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat whisking continually once it begins to thicken. Cook mixture until it becomes thick, translucent, and bubbly. Turn off heat.
Temper the egg yolks by pouring about 1/4 cup of the cornstarch mixture into the yolks, whisking continually to keep the eggs from curdling. Turn the heat back on the cornstarch mixture, and slowly pour in the egg yolks, whisking continually. Once incorporated, whisk in the lemon juice. Bring filling to a simmer. Once large lava bubbles appear on the surface, cook for 1 minute more to ensure a proper set. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until incorporated. Place a fine mesh sieve in the bowl of the crust. Pour the filling through the sieve to catch any larger, unwanted bits. Immediately cover the filling surface with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge to cool for 2 hours.
Make the meringue at least 3 hours before serving and once the filling has chilled for two hours. In a medium saucepan add about 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Place a metal bowl (not glass) on top and check to make sure the water doesn't touch the bottom of bowl.
Remove the bowl and add all the meringue ingredients except for the zest. Using a handheld mixer, mix for 30 seconds to incorporate. Once the water comes to a boil, place the bowl over the saucepan and begin beating immediately on high speed. Set the timer for 7 minutes and continually beat. Mixture will begin to thicken around the 3 minute mark. After 7 minutes, remove the bowl to the counter and continue beating until sturdy enough to hold stiff peaks. Add the zest and mix again until just incorporated.
Remove the pie from the fridge. Discard plastic wrap and add meringue on top of the filling. Using the back of a spoon, pull swoops and circles to create an organic pattern. Using a pastry torch, torch the top until golden. You can also place it directly under a broiler keeping very close watch. You wont have as much control this way. Lightly tent foil so that it's not touching the meringue and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight. Pie is best served within 2 days.
To serve the pie, pop it out of the tart pan. Heat a sharp knife by running it under hot water first and wiping dry. Slowly saw to cut the pie. Rinse knife, heat, and dry before each cut. Pie is best served chilled. To save the cut pie, place a piece of plastic wrap on the exposed cut.
• The lemon filling can be made with 3/4 cup sugar while still setting up nicely. Sugar helps the filling (and meringue) to set up. If you remove too much of it, you may end up with a soupy pie. It's also worth noting that lemons vary in tartness. Meyer lemons are almost sweet and could use less sugar.
A note about meringues
There are 3 different types of meringues—French, Swiss, and Italian. I’m adding a 4th one to the line up. I guess we’ll call it an American meringue. More on this one in a minute.
The French meringue is classically used on this pie. It’s a raw meringue, and in the case of this pie, it’s baked off. The shelf life of its stability is pretty low. It dries out and weeps very easily.
And then there’s the Swiss Meringue. It’s more stable than the French meringue. It’s achieved by cooking egg whites and sugar over a double boiler and then whipped in the mixer until thick and glossy. My plan was to use this meringue, but it proved too finicky for a recipe you typically make a couple times a year. I also found it a little too dense for this pie.
Finally, there’s the Italian meringue. It’s the most stable of them all. It’s achieved by making a candy—cooking water and sugar until 240°F. It’s then carefully poured into egg whites that are whipping away in the mixer. I use this meringue method to make buttercreams. But in the craze of the holidays, when this pie is typically made, I wanted to leave you with something easier.
Which brings us to the 4th type, the American meringue. (I made that up.) You’ve seen this meringue before. It’s often called 7-minute frosting. I’ve never cared for its texture on a cake, but it’s absolutely perfect on this pie. It’s light yet stable. It hold swoops and torches perfectly. And, it’s nearly fool-proof on any site that has published it. I hope you’ll give this non-traditional version a try.