Getting the Hang of Lemon Meringue

It’s the end of the month, so here comes the January Daring Bakers challenge: a classic Lemon Meringue Pie. This was definitely a new one for me, in part because Jeremy and I would ordinarily choose whipped cream over meringue any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I also have to admit I’m not big on lemon desserts in general. But even with two strikes against it, I was not about to let this month’s challenge make me admit defeat…just procrastinate until the last possible moment.

Pie dough

The crust was straightforward since I used my Cuisinart, though I had to add a little additional ice water before it would form a ball. I decided not to make one large pie because it is just the two of us, and this isn’t the sort of dessert that will keep in the fridge. Instead, I rolled out half the dough to make two freeform tartlets and 6 small rounds for parfaits or stacks; the other half of the dough was cut into slightly larger rounds and tucked into the 9 cups of my silicone muffin pan.

Tartlet crust

Into the oven they all went, and came out nicely golden and crisp and rather shrunken. The muffin-cup tarts fared the worst in the latter department, but I didn’t worry about it too much. At the time I was more concerned about the fact that my camera battery had just died and it was getting along in the evening. We frantically tracked down the charger and watched part of a movie while the battery juiced up again, and finally, at about 9:45pm, I got started on the curd and meringue. I juggled both at once to save some time, and it ended up working out well, though rather hard on the nerves.

Since the curd recipe first called for boiling some water, I separated my eggs and used the pot as a bain marie to warm the egg whites to room temperature. By the time I got the meringue set up and whipping, the curd was ready for sugar and cornstarch, and I just turned off the stand mixer when I noticed the meringue getting to soft peak stage. Meanwhile, the curd thickened up beautifully, and stayed reasonably thick even after I added all that lemon juice, which had been of concern. I used the juice of about three Meyer lemons, gleaned with help of my freshly-acquired—and already dearly loved—wooden citrus reamer. (Meyers are more fragrant and less tart than your standard lemon, which suits our tastes to a tee. It was lucky this is the time of year for them.) My only adjustment to the meringue was to use superfine sugar instead of granuated sugar, just because.

Lemon meringue cup-pies

The muffin tartlets each got less than two tablespoons of curd followed by a dollop of meringue. I piled curd in the center of my freeform tartlets, then started getting paranoid that the action of spreading meringue over it would push the curd over the edges and make a horrible sticky, weepy mess. To avert that from happening I barricaded the curd with a ring of meringue around the edges of the crust before covering the middle. That worked well, and would have been easier if I had bothered to pipe the meringue with my pastry bag. Being nearly 11pm and already past my bedtime, I just used a spoon. My meringue sculpting skills could definitely use more practice, but I was running out of energy quickly, so we made do with some rather conservative spikes and swirls. (If you need pretty, go back and look at my yule log from last month’s challenge. I was happy with how that one came out.)

Lemon meringue tartlets

The real test was putting the meringue-crowned tartlets back in the oven. Previous Daring Bakers reported bouts of runny curd and weeping meringue, so I made sure my curd was still hot when I applied the meringue. My real fear was that my oven—which tends to run cold, and never works properly for items that require broiling—would take too long to undercook the meringue and ruin the texture of the curd. I left them for 5 minutes and peeked through the door, still expecting to see stark white foam, but instead, the meringue was already so toasty brown that the peaks were about to start burning. At least that means it was cooked, right?

Lemon meringue tartlets

I gave the tartlets a scant 20 minutes on a cooling rack and served them up, still slightly warm in the center. As you can see from the above photo, there was no weeping or running to be found. The curd stayed nicely set, and the crust was crisp and flaky. The Meyer lemon flavor was not overpoweringly strong, and the meringue actually reminded me of nothing so much as toasted marshmallows. It was a far cry from the tasteless foam I’ve had to scrape off restaurant pies in the past; Jeremy agreed and even went so far as to say that he liked the extra “caramelization” on top.

I have quite a bit of curd leftover, some of which will be used for lemon parfait thingies; I have no doubt we’ll find a good use for the rest. The muffin tartlets have been stashed in the freezer for single-serving desserts this week. I checked on them this morning and discovered that while the crust and curd have frozen, the meringue is still sticky and soft—was that supposed to happen, because of the sugar content or something? Strange and fascinating.

Thawed lemon muffin tart

Update 1/29/08: As the above photo shows, they thawed out perfectly after an hour or two of sitting at room temperature. Just as good as fresh tarts. The meringue never did solidify in the freezer, though.

So this was another Daring Baker dessert that surprised us in a good way, allowing me not only to try out some new baking techniques, but push my personal envelope flavor- and texture-wise. We have Jen at The Canadian Baker to thank for choosing this month’s challenge recipe, which can be found here. Be sure to visit the Daring Bakers blogroll to see everyone else’s creations!

Update 2/12/08: I just thought I’d add that I found what I personally considered to be an almost more satisfactory parfait topper than whipped cream: nonfat vanilla yogurt and toasted coconut. With the leftover lemon curd, you could hardly make an easier dessert, and not (quite) so heavy on the hips. When I ran out of curd, I seriously considered making more just to eat it with my yogurt.

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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