Diner 23’s senior food editor demonstrates Carole Walter’s secrets to getting luscious, billowy homemade lemon meringue pie just right.
By Shelley Wiseman – Diner23.com
Homemade lemon meringue pie can’t be beat, but it can be tricky to make. Lemon meringue pie is extremely temperamental: It doesn’t like humidity, and it doesn’t like to be overmixed, undercooked, or overcooked. Over the years, baking expert Carole Walter has worked out most of the kinks in this delicious dessert, and in this video, Diner 23’s Shelley Wiseman demonstrates Carole’s step-by-step recipe-including all of Carole’s tricks and pro secrets for the perfect lemon meringue pie.
Homemade lemon meringue pie can’t be beat, but it can be tricky to make. The most common problems that occur with this classic are soggy bottom crusts, fillings that don’t set, and beads of moisture forming on top of the meringue, also known as “weeping.” These issues occur because lemon meringue pie is extremely temperamental. It doesn’t like humidity. It doesn’t like to be overmixed, undercooked, or overcooked. Over the years, baking expert Carole Walter has worked out most of the kinks in this delicious dessert, and in her step-by-step recipe, she passes all she’s learned, including her pro secrets, on to you.
More ins-PIE-ration: Get inspired to celebrate Pi Day-March 14-by making this or any of the scrumptious pies in our slideshow.
What Makes a Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie?
The meringue should be light, fine textured, and billowy, without any beads of moisture clustered on the surface. The topping on store-bought pies is often made with meringue powder, which can taste artificial. The meringue here is made with real egg whites, so its flavor is clean and fresh.
The lemon filling in some pies can be overly thick and starchy. This filling has a luxuriously smooth consistency that’s
not too thick or thin. Using fresh lemon juice and zest is the key to its bright, citrusy flavor.
The crust for this pie is buttery, tender, and flaky. Baking powder is the secret ingredient in this dough; it’s unusual in a crust, but it helps lighten the pastry’s texture.
Get the Recipe: Lemon Meringue Pie
For the crust:
- 6 oz. (1-1/4 cups plus 2 Tbs.) unsifted all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp. table salt
- 1/4 tsp. baking powder
- 3 oz. (6 Tbs.) chilled unsalted butter,
- cut into 1/2-inch cubes; more for the plate
- 2 oz. (4 Tbs.) frozen vegetable shortening,
- cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 to 4 Tbs. ice water
For the filling:
- 1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp. table salt
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1 oz. (2 Tbs.) unsalted butter, cut into
- 4 pieces and softened
- 1-1/2 Tbs. finely grated and minced lemon zest,
- plus 1/3 cup strained juice (from 3 medium lemons)
- 1 oz. (3 Tbs.) finely ground gingersnap cookies
For the meringue:
- 5 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup superfine sugar
- 3/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
Make the dough
Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a zip-top bag; shake to mix and chill in the freezer for about 30 minutes. Add half of the butter and shortening to the bag and toss to coat with flour. Transfer the mixture to a food processor. Give it four 1-second pulses and then process for 3 to 4 seconds. Add the remaining butter and shortening and pulse again 4 times; then process until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal with some pea-size pieces of butter and shortening, 3 to 4 seconds.
Empty the mixture into a large bowl. Drizzle 1 Tbs. of the ice water around the side of the bowl and use a fork to push the flour mixture from the edges towards the center; repeat with a second tablespoon of ice water. Clusters of dough will form and become larger with each addition of water. After adding 2 Tbs. water, test the dough by pressing a small handful of clusters together and then breaking them apart. If they feel dry and crumble easily, add more water, 1 Tbs. at a time (up to 4 Tbs. total), until the clusters feel moist and bind together.
Gather and press the dough into a ball, flatten it into a 4- to 5-inch disk, and dust with flour. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate until cold but still pliable enough to leave a slight imprint when pressed with a fingertip, about 1 hour. (The dough will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer. Thaw frozen dough in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours; then let stand at room temperature until pliable.)
Shape the crust
Butter the bottom, sides, and rim of a 9-inch glass pie plate.
On a floured pastry cloth or lightly floured work surface, roll the dough with a floured rolling pin (preferably covered with a rolling pin sleeve) into a 13-inch circle that’s about 1/8 inch thick. Roll the dough around the rolling pin, unroll it over the pie plate, and gently fit it into the plate without stretching. Trim the dough with scissors to a 3/4- to 1-inch overhang. (Reserve the dough scraps, without pressing them into a ball, in case you need to patch the shell later.) Roll the overhang under itself and flatten it slightly to cover the rim of the pie plate completely. Chill for at least 30 minutes before baking.
Carole’s secrets to the crust
For rolling the dough, Carole uses a pastry cloth and a rolling pin sleeve. While not mandatory, they prevent the overuse of flour and keep the dough from sticking to the rolling surface and pin. Also, be sure to flour the rolling surface and pin, not the top of the dough, so you don’t incorporate too much flour into the dough. She always butters the pie plate. This anchors the dough, promotes browning, and helps maintain the crust’s shape. And finally, she sprinkles gingersnap crumbs over the bottom crust before filling it. The crumbs act as a moisture shield, protecting the bottom from sogginess, and complementing the lemon flavor without being obvious.
Bake the crust
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 425°F. Using a fork, lightly prick the bottom and sides of the crust at 1-inch intervals (without going all the way through the crust). Fit a buttered 12-inch piece of aluminum foil over the crust, buttered side down. Fill 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep with dried beans or pie weights-do not overfill.
Bake the crust on a rimmed baking sheet until the edges begin to brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Let stand on a cooling rack for about 30 seconds, and then carefully remove the foil and beans. If the foil doesn’t release easily, don’t force it-bake for a few minutes more and try again. If any holes or tears appear, patch them by placing small pieces of the reserved dough scraps over the holes, let stand for a few seconds, and then gently tap them with your finger until they adhere. Reduce the oven temperature to 375°F and continue to bake the crust until deep golden-brown all over, 16 to 20 minutes more. Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes. (Keep the oven on.)
Make the filling
In a heavy-duty 3-quart nonreactive saucepan, whisk together (preferably with a tapered sauce whisk) the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in 1/4 cup cold water until the mixture is smooth. Then whisk in another 1-1/4 cups cold water until combined. Cook over medium to medium-low heat, stirring occasionally at first with a heatproof spatula, then continuously as the mixture comes to a boil (you will see a few large bubbles pop), turns glossy, and thickens into a semi-translucent gel, 4 to 6 minutes. Whisk briefly to smooth out the mixture; then reduce the heat to low and cook 1 minute more, gently pulling the mixture from the sides to the center with the spatula to prevent scorching. Remove the pot from the heat.
In a medium bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks. Gently whisk about ½ cup of the gel into the egg yolks; repeat with another 1/2 cup gel. Pour the yolk mixture into the pot and gently whisk to combine. Over low to medium-low heat, cook the filling, gently pulling it from the sides to the center with the spatula, until it begins to boil (you will see a few large bubbles pop), 4 to 6 minutes. Continue to cook, stirring as before, until the mixture thickens further (don’t worry if it clumps at this point), about 1 minute more. Remove the pot from the heat and dot the filling with the butter, pushing it under the surface; let stand for a minute to melt. Gently whisk in the lemon juice and zest until smooth. Sprinkle the ground gingersnaps over the bottom of the pie crust; pour the filling over the crumbs and smooth the top with the spatula. Let cool to room temperature before making the meringue, at least 30 minutes.
Carole’s secrets to the filling
Before you start, check your cornstarch. If it contains small clumps, it contains moisture. This will affect its thickening power, so don’t use it; instead, buy a new box. It’s also important to use a heavy-duty, nonreactive pot. This helps prevent the filling from scorching and lets it maintain its lemony color. A reactive aluminum pot will turn the filling gray. Finally, when making the filling, start by whisking just a little of the cold water into the dry ingredients until smooth. Then blend in the remaining liquid; this will keep lumps from forming.
Make the meringue
Bring 1/2 inch of water to a simmer in a pot that will hold the bowl of a stand mixer without letting it touch the water. Reduce the heat to low. Put the egg whites in the bowl off the heat and whisk (preferably with a balloon whisk) until frothy. Add the sugar about 2 Tbs. at a time, whisking for about 5 seconds between additions.
Put the bowl over the pot and whisk gently but constantly (you are not trying to incorporate air, but to keep the whites moving so they don’t cook) until the whites are very warm to the touch (they will register 115°F to 120°F on an instant-read thermometer) and the sugar is thoroughly dissolved (lift a ribbon of whites from the bowl with the whisk and rub the whites between your fingertips-you should feel no grit), 2 to 4 minutes.
Add the vanilla and cream of tartar, transfer the bowl to the stand mixer, fit with the whisk attachment, and beat, gradually increasing the speed from low to medium high over the course of 1 minute, until the egg whites form thick, glossy medium-firm peaks (they should hold their shape but curl at their tips), 3 to 5 minutes total.
Carole’s secrets to billowy meringue
Carole uses a Swiss meringue, which is light but firm and fine textured It’s made by heating sugar and egg whites over hot water and then whipping them to billowy peaks. Be sure your beater and bowl are perfectly clean and that there are no traces of yolk in your egg whites; any fat will keep the beaten whites from fully increasing in volume. To prevent weeping, it’s important that the sugar be fully dissolved in the egg whites. Carol uses superfine sugar here because it dissolves more quickly and easily than granulated sugar. Also, cream of tartar gives the meringue extra stability.
Creating the pie’s signature peaks
Using a soup spoon, drop some of the meringue in mounds in a ring around the edge of the filling. With the back of the spoon, gently spread the dollops of meringue over the entire surface of the filling and all the way to the crust’s edge. It is essential that all of the filling be completely covered by the meringue, without any air pockets, and that the edge of the meringue be anchored to the rim of the crust. Mound the remaining meringue on top and press with the back of the spoon to eliminate any air pockets without deflating the meringue. Make decorative peaks with the back of the spoon.
Carole’s secrets to assembling the pie
When putting this pie together, it’s crucial that the meringue be at about the same temperature as the filling. Many lemon meringue pie recipes call for the filling to be hot so it cooks the bottom of the meringue and helps it adhere. However, this creates steam between the meringue and the filling, which can break down the filling and cause the pie to fall apart. In this recipe, both the meringue and the filling should be at room temperature.
Bake the pie until the meringue peaks brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Cool the pie on a rack away from drafts to prevent the meringue from shrinking. Let stand at least 1 hour before serving. To slice, rinse a sharp, thin-bladed knife in hot water and shake off the excess before making each cut. Lemon meringue pie is best eaten the day it’s made, but leftovers will keep, loosely tented with aluminum foil and refrigerated, for up to 3 days. Never cover with plastic wrap-too much condensation will form under the wrapping. Do not freeze.