Jim Coleman: How to stop that meringue from weeping

Posted: February 07, 2008

Q: For Valentine's Day, I am making my boyfriend's favorite dessert, lemon meringue pie. I have his family's recipe, and the last time I made it, I followed the recipe exactly. It looked great and tasted great, but there was one problem: The golden meringue pulled away from the edges of the pan, and underneath the meringue was very watery. Can you please send me another recipe and tell me how to prevent this mistake? Is there a way to fix the recipe I have?

- Lynn H.

A: You sound like such a great girlfriend. I'm so touched. Every time I look at your letter I can barely read it because of all the weeping . . .

No, it's not me weeping - all that sobbing is coming from your meringue. Weeping is the culinary term for what is going wrong with your meringue.

Grab a hankie: We're going to keep you and that pie from ever watering up again.

First, to cheer you up, a little fun history about meringue. My old Larousse cookbook says that a Swiss pastry chef named Gasparini created the stuff in 1720.

However, as far back as the 1500s, there are references to cooked, whipped egg whites. The recipe just wasn't written down until the 1700s.

It was a big hit in the palaces of France. Queen Marie Antoinette became such a fan of the stuff, she would make it herself.

Lynn, it may be comforting to know that you have lots of company when it comes to weeping . . . Sorry, I'll restate that:

Weeping is a very common problem when it comes to meringue pies. Here are some easy solutions:

1. Make sure your filling is very hot when you pour it into the pie shell. Top it immediately with the meringue. The meringue will start cooking as soon as it touches the hot filling. This heat, in addition to the oven heat, will help prevent weeping.

2. Make sure you spread your meringue to the edge of the crust, completely sealing the pie. This will insulate the filling while baking.

3. Make certain your egg whites are beaten to their full capacity or maximum volume. To help ensure this, use room-temperature egg whites. Start beating slowly, then increase speed when they get frothy.

4. This one is key: Try adding some cornstarch to your meringue. It produces a more tender meringue and one that is more stabilized, which reduces shrinkage (a condition that promotes weeping).

For four egg whites, use 1 tablespoon cornstarch stirred into 1/3 cup water. The cornstarch mixture is added at the end of the beating process.

Lynn, I'm sure you have a good lemon meringue pie recipe. But here are several more; maybe one will become a new family favorite.

Whichever recipe you use, if you follow the four tips above, your weeping should become a thing of the past. You'll have to excuse me; I'm so happy that I can help on Valentine's Day, I'm getting all choked up. *

LYNN'S NEW FAMILY LEMON MERINGUE PIE

1 cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1½ cups water

6 egg yolks

½ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons butter

One 9-inch pie crust, pre-baked and cooled

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/3 cup water

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

½ cup extra-fine sugar

4 egg whites

½ teaspoon real vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Mix 1 cup sugar, cup cornstarch, salt and 1 cups water in heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium to medium-high heat, whisking frequently.

When mixture starts to turn translucent, whisk in egg yolks, two at a time. Add the lemon juice and butter. Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly.

Remove from heat, continuously whisking until cool. Cover the pot with plastic wrap (including the sides), making sure it is directly on the surface of the filling to prevent a skin from forming.

Mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool.

Mix cream of tartar with the extra-fine sugar until well-blended. Beat egg whites and vanilla until foamy and add sugar mixture, a tablespoon at a time, whisking to form soft peaks.

Add cornstarch mixture, a tablespoon at a time, continuously beating until stiff peaks form, and the egg whites have reached maximum volume.

Reheat lemon filling over very low heat during last minutes of beating the meringue, to make sure filling is hot.

Pour the hot filling into the pie shell. Immediately place meringue around the edges of the filling and the piecrust, then work to the center of the pie.

Seal the pie by making sure the meringue is attached to the edge, so it doesn't shrink while baking.

Use the back of a spoon to carefully and gently spread the meringue and create peaks. Bake in the preheated, 325-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until meringue is golden brown. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

LYNN'S SECRET VALENTINE'S LEMON MERINGUE PIE

For graham cracker-coated pie shell:

1¼ cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup graham cracker crumbs

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and frozen

3 to 5 tablespoons ice water, as needed

For the lemon filling:

1 cup sugar

3½ tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons flour

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1½ cups water

1½ lemons, zested

1/3 cup lemon juice

¼ teaspoon lemon extract

3 egg yolks

2 tablespoon butter

For the meringue:

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/3 cup water

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

½ cup extra-fine sugar

4 egg whites

½ teaspoon real vanilla extract

To make pie shell: Mix flour, sugar, graham cracker crumbs and salt in a food processor by pulsing a few times to combine. Add the frozen butter, pulsing in one-second intervals until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal with pea-sized pieces.

Slowly add ice water while continuously pulsing, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a ball. (It should take 3 to 4 tablespoons of ice water to reach this stage.)

Dust dough with flour and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough on a floured work surface. Place in and overlap a 9-inch pie plate. Dock the dough with a fork. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

To make lemon filling: In a saucepot over medium high heat, combine sugar, cornstarch, flour, salt and water. Bring to a boil and stir until thickened, about 3 minutes.

Combine the lemon zest, juice and extract with the yolks. Temper the yolks with the hot sugar mixture.

Stir in the butter and strain through a fine mesh strainer if necessary. Put the mixture back over the heat and cook for another 3 minutes. Cover and keep warm.

To make the meringue: Mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1/3 cup water in small saucepan and bring to a simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool.

Mix cream of tartar and cup sugar until well blended. Beat egg whites and vanilla until foamy and add sugar mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture forms soft peaks. Add cornstarch mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, continuously beating until stiff peaks form, and the egg whites have reached maximum volume. Follow directions in first recipe to fill and bake pie.

Chef Jim Coleman, corporate chef at Normandy Farm and Blue Bell Country Club, is the author of three cookbooks and is the host of two nationally syndicated cooking shows – "A Chef's Table" on WHYY (91-FM) at noon Saturdays and "Flavors of America," on Channel 12 at 1 p.m. Saturdays and CN8 Monday through Friday, 4:30 p.m.

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