April 08, 2020

The fruit of the lemon

When my aunt in Pasadena, Calif., called to inquire as to what to do with the bumper crop of lemons in her backyard, my three daughters and I put our heads together.

“Make lemonade,” suggested my youngest.

“Mix hot lemon juice with honey to soothe my sore throat,” said my oldest.

My first thoughts about this bright yellow citrus fruit were culinary. If you dip cut-up apple and pear slices in lemon juice, they won’t turn brown because of the acidity in the juice. The grated rind of lemons — lemon zest — adds zip to fruit salads and is better than any bottled flavoring. Lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs make a simple and marvelous marinade that can be used for poultry and seafood.

Throughout the years, the oval-shaped lemon has also been used for a multitude of nonculinary purposes. Lemon juice was often employed as a bleaching agent and can safely be used to remove beet or cherry stains from fingers. Grinding used lemon rinds in the garbage disposal dispels nasty odors. And a lemon half and coarse salt rubbed over tarnished copper pans is an earth-friendly way to clean them.

But it was my middle daughter whose idea my aunt thought was the best.

“Send them to me so I can eat them, and Mommy can make lemon meringue pie,” she said.

Two days later, Federal Express delivered a half-bushel of fragrant California nuggets, for which gold diggers paid one dollar each at the height of the Gold Rush.

Interestingly enough, lemon trees prefer California to Florida. The ancestors of my aunt’s lemon trees originated in China some 3,000 years ago and moved westward across Europe over many centuries with the ebb and flow of the empires. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the “pips and seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons” to the New World, and by 1525 they were flourishing abundantly.

As the missionaries spread westward throughout the United States in the 1740s, so did the planting of orange and lemon trees. The first commercial groves were planted in 1845 in what is now downtown Los Angeles. The transcontinental railroads rolled lemons all across the country.

Lemons in hand, it became my mission to create the best lemon meringue pie ever. My test results with many recipe versions, including those of Fannie Farmer and the cornstarch box, were spotty. Creating the perfectly textured pie with a solid filling and a fresh lemon taste in every bite escaped me.

I was discouraged that my beautiful California lemons would end up on the compost heap until I turned to science for some answers.

Earlier this fall during a three-day tour of the lobster industry, Shirley O. Corriher, a biochemist, food sleuth and writer from Atlanta, Ga., had given me a copy of her book, “Cook Wise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking.” I remember Shirley for her indefatiguable good humor and many stories, but most of all her answers to my questions always made sense. The following recipe for My Favorite Lemon Meringue Pie is adapted from Chapter Three, “Eggs Unscrambled.”

The meringue of pies presents a a serious health threat from salmonella. Cooking the whites to 160 degrees kills the salmonella. Undercooking the meringue causes weeping, and overcooking causes beading. A tip from Roland Mesnier, the White House pastry chef, is to sprinkle fine cake crumbs over the hot pie filling before adding the meringue. This helps to prevent leakage from ruining the pie.

Runny pie filling is due to alpha amylase, an enzyme in yolks that can thin starch custards. Thickening the starch mixture before adding the lemon juice prevents the acids from interfering with the starch’s swelling and thickening. Egg yolks provide emulsifiers for a sensuously smooth filling.

Forearmed with Shirley’s knowledge and my gorgeous California lemons, I subjected my family one more time to another version of lemon meringue pie. Now that lemons are plentiful in the supermarket, try it yourself and see if this doesn’t become your favorite Lemon Meringue Pie.

My Favorite Lemon Meringue Pie (makes two 9-inch pies)

For the crust: 2 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup vegetable shortening (like Crisco) 7-8 tablespoons cold water

Mix the flour and the salt. Using a pastry blender or two knifes, cut the shortening into the flour. The mixture should resemble coarse meal or very tiny peas. Do not overmix. Add the water and mix lightly with a fork, using only enough water so that the pastry will hold together when gently pressed into a ball. Divide the dough in half. On a well floured surface, roll out each section of the pastry so that it is about 2 inches larger than the pie pan. Fit the pastry into the pan, fluting the edges. Prick the bottom dough all over with a fork. For a crisp crust, bake the shell on the lowest rack of a thoroughly preheated 425 degree oven. (Lower the oven to 400 if using a glass pie plate.) Bake the shell until lightly browned, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and set on a rack to cool.

Note: If desired, prepared pastry dough, available in supermarkets, may be used to make the pie shells. Bake according to the manufacturer’s directions.

For the meringue topping: 6 large egg whites 2 tablespoons water

3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup sugar 1 tablespoon corn starch 1/3 cup cool water 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract grated zest of one lemon

Stir the whites, cream of tartar and sugar together well in a medium size stainless steel bowl. Heat 1 inch of water to a simmer on a medium size skillet and turn the heat off. Run a cup of hot tap water, place an instant read thermometer in it, and place near the skillet. Place the stainless steel bowl of egg white mixture in the skillet of hot water and scrape the bottom and the sides of the bowl constantly with a rubber scraper to prevent the whites from overheating. After one minute of constant scraping and stirring, remove the bowl from the hot water and place the thermometer in the whites, tilting the bowl so that 2 inches of whites cover the stem. When the temperature of the whites has reached 160 degrees, use an electric mixer and beat the whites until peaks are formed when the beaters are lifted.

Sprinkle cornstarch into a small saucepan, add the cool water and let stand 1 minute. Then stir well. Bring the water and the cornstarch to a boil, stirring constantly. The mixture will be thick and slightly cloudy. Let it cool for a couple of minutes, then whisk 2 tablespoons of the cornstarch mixture into the meringue. Continue adding the cornstarch mixture and beating it in until it is all incorporated. Whisk in the vanilla and lemon zest. Set aside while preparing the pie filling.

For the lemon filling:

1/2 cup cornstarch 3 tablespoons all purpose flour 1 1/2 cups sugar 2 1/4 cups water 2 large eggs 6 large egg yolks 3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice finely grated zest of 2 lemons

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 4-5 tablespoons very fine cake crumbs (for fine cake crumbs, even a ground up Twinkie or a cake doughnut will do)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place an oven shelf in the lower third of the oven.

Stir together the cornstarch, flour and sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir in the water and heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick. Remove from heat. Whisk together the eggs and yolks in a medium bowl and stir in several tablespoons of the hot filling to warm the mixture. Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan and return to the heat. Bring the mixture back to a boil, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly, to kill the enzymes in the yolks that can thin the pie. Remove from heat and stir in butter, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla.

To assemble the pies:

Pour the hot filling into the prebaked crusts. While the filling is piping hot, sprinkle with fine cake crumbs and cover with some of the meringue. Take care to spread the meringue so that it touches the crust all the way around. After you have covered the hot filling well, pile on the rest of the meringue and make decorative swirls with the back of a spoon. Bake the pies in the preheated oven until the meringue begins to brown lightly, about 25 minutes. Refrigerate, uncovered, for several hours before serving. For the best flavors, serve pie chilled.

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