Lemon Meringue Pie: A Family Favorite
My grandmother Mae was notorious for her sweet tooth. How she lived to 97 on a diet that included daily jelly donuts I have no idea.
She loved to bake and one of her favorite things to make for us was lemon meringue pie. I still remember the magic of that whipped meringue topping that went into the oven like soft cloudy pillows and came out firm and golden brown.
Taking that first bite? Cutting into the light billowy meringue, scooping up that buttery lemon filling? Sigh.
Now as much as I loved my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, she left no record of the recipe that I have found. But this one? It’s even better. I think it’s the best lemon meringue pie recipe around.
Three Elements for the Best Lemon Meringue Pie
There are three elements that make up a perfect lemon meringue pie—
- A lemon curd filling that is just the right balance of tart and sweet
- A tall and tender meringue topping, lightly browned.
- The crust, of course. I make an all-butter crust for lemon meringue pie this way, but you can easily use a store-bought frozen crust for this recipe.
The trick to making lemon curd for lemon meringue pie
A lemon curd filling is the base for a lemon meringue pie. You make it with egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice, and zest, and fortify with cornstarch so it holds its shape when you cut the pie.
What happens when the lemon curd fails to set properly? A runny filling, no fun!
According to Shirley Corriher (author of Cookwise, terrific book) the problem arises when the egg yolk meets cornstarch. Egg yolks have an enzyme in them that can thin out the starch, leaving you with a runny filling. With enough heat, the enzyme is deactivated, so the solution is to bring the filling to a boil for a long enough time to neutralize that enzyme.
You might think that boiling egg yolks would make them curdle, but after they’ve been tempered, and combined with the starch mixture, the starch prevents them from curdling.
How to make Meringue for Lemon Meringue Pie
Egg whites demand attention to whip well, and extra help to hold their shape in a meringue.
The best lemon meringue pie trick I learned (also from Shirley Corriher) is to add a gelled cornstarch and water mixture to the meringue. In addition to the acid from cream of tartar, and the use of sugar, the cornstarch helps the meringue hold its shape, and keep it from weeping or shrinking when baked in the pie.
This is how you get a “mile-high” lemon meringue pie. Plenty of egg whites, and enough support to keep the whipped meringue sturdy enough to cut, yet tender to eat.
More Recipes if You Love Lemon!
Lemon Meringue Pie Recipe
Eggs are easier to separate when cold. You'll want to use the egg whites when they are closer to room temperature. So separate the eggs first, then let the egg whites sit for a while before making the meringue.
Egg whites will refuse to whip up properly if they are in contact with any fat. So, make sure your mixer bowl and whisk are completely clean.
Also make sure that there are not bits of yolk that have made their way into the egg whites when you separated them.
- 1 frozen pie crust (see pie crust recipe for instructions to make your own, use a butter crust or butter and shortening crust recipe)
For the lemon filling:
- 5 large egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons butter
For the meringue:
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/3 cup cold water
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (can use vinegar instead of cream of tartar, see method instructions)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white granulated sugar
- 5 large egg whites (room temperature)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Pre-bake the pie shell: If you are using a packaged frozen pie crust, please follow the directions on the package to pre-bake. If you are using a homemade crust, please follow these instructions:
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a frozen pie shell with aluminum foil so that the foil extends over the edges (will make convenient handles). Fill two-thirds of the way with pie weights or dry beans.
Bake for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and the pie weights. Poke the bottom of the crust in several places with the tines of a fork. This will help prevent the bottom from bubbling up.
Put the crust back in the oven and bake for 15 minutes more, or until the crust is lightly browned. Remove from oven and set aside.
2 Make the lemon filling: Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl and set aside.
In a medium-sized saucepan, add 6 tablespoons cornstarch, 1 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 cups water, and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil on medium heat, whisking constantly. Let simmer for a minute or two until the mixture begins to thicken.
Once the cornstarch mixture has thickened up well (consistency of Cream of Wheat) remove from heat. Take a spoonful of the cornstarch mixture and whisk it into the beaten egg yolks to temper the yolks. Continue to whisk in spoonfuls of the cornstarch mixture until you've used about half of the cornstarch mixture.
Then add the egg yolk mixture back to the pot with the cornstarch. Return to a boil, on medium to medium high heat, stirring constantly. Cook 3 to 4 minutes. (The starch will keep the eggs from curdling.)
Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice, lemon zest, and butter.
3 Preheat oven to 325°F.
4 Prepare cornstarch mixture for the meringue: In a small saucepan, whisk together 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 1/3 cup of cold water until the cornstarch dissolves. Heat on medium heat and whisk until the mixture bubbles and thickens. Remove from heat and set aside.
5 Whisk together the sugar and cream of tartar: Whisk together 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar, set aside. (If you do not have cream of tartar, instead add a teaspoon of white vinegar to the egg whites with the vanilla in the next step.)
6 Make the meringue: Place egg whites and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract in the bowl of your mixer. Start beating the egg whites on low speed and gradually increase the speed to medium.
Once the egg whites are frothy, slowly add in the sugar and cream of tartar, a spoonful at a time. Beat until the egg whites form soft peaks.
Add the cornstarch water mixture (it should look like a gel) a spoonful at a time, as you continue to beat the egg whites. Increase the speed to high and continue to beat until the egg whites have formed stiff peaks. Do not over-beat, or your meringue will be grainy.
7 Fill pie shell with filling: Heat the lemon filling again, until it is bubbling hot.
Scoop the steaming hot filling into the pre-baked pie shell, spreading it evenly.
8 Top with meringue: Working quickly, use a rubber spatula to spread the meringue mixture evenly around the edge of the pie.
Make sure the mixture attaches to the crust with no gaps. The crust will help anchor the meringue and help keep it from shrinking.
Fill in the center with more meringue mixture. Use the back of a spoon to create peaks all over the meringue.
8 Bake: Bake the pie for 20 minutes at 325°F, until the meringue is golden brown.
Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely to room temperature. If the pie is even remotely warm when you cut into it, the lemon base may be runny. To help firm up the base, after the pie has cooled down, you can place the pie on top of a cooling pack covered with a tea towel.
Best eaten the same day.
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