Wednesday, June 8, 2016

In which your humble writer learns that meringue is not the problem

It's time for the third annual Pieathalon! (See my first entry here and my second one here.) I sent Yinzerella of the awesome Dinner is Served blog my recipe and waited anxiously to see what I'd get.

On the big day, I checked my email to find a copy of lemon meringue pie. Susie of Bittersweet Susie emailed to apologize that the recipe she sent was so boring, but I wrote back, "Don't worry! I'm excited to get something that sounds as if it should be edible. I was afraid I'd get something like curried hot dog and fruit cocktail pot pie with whipped cottage cheese topping." Now I'm desperately hoping nobody finds a recipe to meet that description for next year's swap because I don't want to end up having to make it!

The scan of the booklet is beautiful. Here is the cover of the 1923(!) Calumet baking powder pamphlet from which the recipe was taken:

And I assume this is the back cover:

In case you were wondering what baking powder had to do with lemon meringue, it's in the crust:

And here is the recipe for the filling:

Have you ever been super-worried about doing something, and then later realized you were right to be worried but wrong about which elements should cause the worry? Well... that was my experience with this pie.

First, I was concerned about the crust. I have never been great with shaping pie crust. (Plus, this is only a one-crust pie, so I had to halve the crust recipe and guesstimate how much baking powder equals a sixth of a teaspoon!)

Still, I managed to turn this crazy-sad mess of pie dough (that looks as if it may have been designed by Slartibartfast's understudy, for those of you who like geeky references)...

...into a passable crust with a LOT of cut-and-paste work.

Note that I didn't claim it was anything more than passable!

One hurdle down, I got really nervous about making the meringue. The recipe calls for no stabilizer, and it says the sugar has to be folded into the already-whipped egg whites, which are then cooked on top of the already-cooled lemon pudding. I haven't made lemon meringue in years, but none of that sounded right to me. I looked up meringue pies online. Everything I saw said to add some cream of tartar to the egg whites at the beginning and to whip the sugar in a little at a time so it will dissolve into the whites. They also said meringue should be made first rather than last so it can go atop the HOT filling as quickly as possible so the bottom of the meringue will cook.

Thinking I was terribly clever, I assembled my ingredients and got started.

I separated the eggs, then zested and juiced a lemon. (I only had to use one to get the full amount of juice! 1920s lemons must have been smaller.)

I whipped the egg whites, but not as directed, adding a little cream of tartar at the beginning and gradually whipping in the sugar and salt nearer the end. The part I was worried about seemed to go pretty well.

Relieved, I started what I had assumed would be the easy part-- the lemon pudding. Then I realized I was supposed to use a double boiler, but I don't have a double boiler. I rigged one up by putting a small ramekin in the bottom of a large pan, filling the bottom with water, and then resting a smaller pan on top of the ramekin. Here's my jury-rigged double boiler:

I added the sugar, flour, boiling water, and milk. Then I cooked it... and cooked it... and cooked it... The recipe said it was supposed to get thick. The water in the bottom was boiling like crazy. I kept stirring and thinking, "Does it seem like it's finally getting slightly thicker?" Then I'd have to truthfully answer that no, any "thickening" seemed more like wishful thinking. Finally, I looked at the clock and said, "If I'm still standing here stirring this in five minutes, I am going to assume this is as thick as it gets, and I'm going to add the eggs. They're sure to help!"

Five minutes and no appreciable difference later, I tempered the eggs with a bit of the hot mixture and stirred them in. Despite my best efforts, I saw bits of scrambled eggs in the filling, so I knew it must have been good and hot. Then I stirred, and stirred, and stirred... and waited, and waited, and waited. Still-- no appreciable difference other than bits of scrambled eggs floating around in the mixture. I finally gave myself five more minutes... which went by the same way my earlier five had. I wasn't sure how much longer the whipped egg whites would wait in my hot and humid kitchen, and the lemon zest was starting to turn grayish as it waited on the counter.

"Well," I said, with uncharacteristic optimism, "maybe this will get thicker in the oven!" Then I strained out the egg bits, added the butter, lemon juice, and zest, and poured it into the waiting crust. Maybe if I were brighter, I would have tried microwaving the lemon mixture or cooking it directly on the burner, but in the heat(!) of the moment, I was not that thoughtful.

I couldn't really spread the egg whites on top any more than I could have spread them on a cup of water. The meringue was really just floating islands:

I threw the whole mess into the waiting oven and baked it for five minutes longer than the recommendation, hoping that would somehow help.

Then I called in my special guest to help me with the big reveal:

"Wow," said Tina. "This is... uh... really friendly meringue. I like how it all drifted toward me."

"It's not really supposed to drift at all," I said. "And I'm sorry you have to do your guest spot on top of my stove. I just wasn't sure I could take this to a better table for pictures without spilling it."

"I thought maybe it seemed a little jigglier than pies usually are."

"Yeah. That means I really can't even cut you a slice. Do you still want to taste the lemon soup underneath?"

I handed her a little spoonful, and she tasted it and smiled. "This does taste really good. Very zesty and bright."

Afraid she might be a bit too diplomatic, I took a sip of pie and realized she was right.

"Thanks for helping me out, Tina. I'm sorry I screwed up the day you were my special guest."

"Well, there is a way you could make it up to me."

"Really? I feel bad about this. What do you want?"

"You usually have a horror icon help you out with the pie. I'm pretty sure you have somebody on your horror shelf I'd like to meet."

"You're right! I know just what you want."

"Hi there, handsome."

As Tina and her new zombie friend wandered off toward the spice rack, I only regretted that her arms were too short to reach his butt.

If you want to try this pie, it seems as if it should taste great if you're smarter than I am and can find a way to make the lemon pudding thicken up! I'm going to blame this failure on my half-assed double boiler.

Here's a big thank you to Yinzerella of Dinner is Served for putting together our third Pieathalon. Visit all the other Pieathletes:


  1. And now I understand why you were impressed by 2 double boilers. LOL.

    I wish you had an email sign up option on your site. I miss so much of your stuff and it is SO good.

    Thanks again for playing! :)

    1. Thank you for the suggestion! I added an email option on the right.

  2. As a regular reader of your blog, I find you often brilliantly amusing! But today, "I took a sip of soup..." had me on the floor!!! So sorry it was at the expense of your valiant but failed efforts...but it was a great read! Happy Tina was gracious about it too. :-)
    Greg, Recipes4Rebels

    1. I was hoping the word "sip" would adequately convey the experience. I'm glad it amused you! :-)

  3. Haha... My Fidget Pie was also soup!

  4. Congratulations on your valiant effort, Poppy!!! I'm sure I would have given up at the thought of making the pie crust let alone trying to thicken the filling. And, as for the meringue, well, I don't do meringue at all, ever!!! Good for you for showing patience and tenacity, I commend you and appreciate you sharing the experience in all modes, lol...

    1. It looks as if a lot of other cooks were more patient with their recipes than I was, but hey... I tried!

  5. Well I came over to see this Lemon Meringue Pie after seeing it listed on Mid-Century Menu. This is so sad a recipe and it looks from the pics that you don't do many pie crusts and filling recipes. Let's not even get into the issues of the meringue recipe and the way it was put on the pie! Once you add the Lemon juice the mixture does not thicken in these older recipes. My Grandmother recipe is from the '20s and it uses both corn starch and flour. No milk, boiling water only. I have added extra flour, corn starch, and egg yolk to make it a more consistent product. Better luck next time getting a good recipe!

    1. It's good to know that it's not just me! The lemon meringues I've successfully made in the past had cornstarch and plenty of it.

  6. Your pie stayed like a soup too! And I totally recognize the cut-and-paste pie crust- that's most of mine also. :D

  7. Ah, the trials and tribulations of lemon meringue pie. I loved this as a kid but I realise now it was because my mum made it from a PACKET. She admitted to this recently. My piathalon pie from last year was just like this, good for sipping! Jenny from Silver Screen Suppers xx

  8. Slartiblartfast! He would definitely appreciate the fjords of your pie.

    "I'm no hero. I put my boobs in my bra one at a time." - T. Belcher

    1. I hoped somebody would get the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" reference! And Tina is my hero, no matter how humble. :-)