Practically perfect in every way. Except for always being early.

Because You Know Better Lemon Meringue Pie

Many people assume they dislike lemon meringue pie because they’ve never had one done well. Mine, wouldn’t you know, happens to be a prime example of this classic American dessert at its most stately. Why anyone would forgo freshly squeezed lemon juice in favor of a bottled extract is beyond me, yet a disheartening number of diners and bakeries misguidedly boast sickly-sweet, cough-syrup-reminiscent pudding-pie bastard cousins of our refined and tasteful heroine. I consider a graham cracker crust to be essential, but then again, I refuse to acknowledge a marriage between custard and pie crust. If you must go with pastry, at least have the dignity to make a decent pat
é sucrée.

While I take enormous pride in my lemon meringue, I’m duly ashamed of releasing it so inappropriately early in the season. My current craving situation is similar to that of Ray in Ghostbusters when he summons the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man; any dessert I picture materializes immediately (or as soon as I can get to the market and back). I’ve been eating cakes as fast as I can to make room for the new ones that haunt my dreams, and I’ve distracted myself with the previous four posts, but my fever for the Citrus Siren refused to be quelled for another week. I’m a little worried that I won’t properly sate my desire with this particular unit, since I’m making it for a meet-the-baby get-together with some friends, and it’s in rather poor taste to take food back from a new mother. Still, I may be able to sneak away unnoticed into the garage with the plate for ten minutes at some point…

The Crust:
1 1/4 graham cracker crumbs
2 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp butter, melted

Set your oven to 350. Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Once the butter has moistened all crumbs, press the mixture into a glass pie plate or similarly-sized springform, as far up the sides as is worth the effort. Bake the unfilled crust for about 7 minutes, then let it cool while you prepare…

The Filling:
1 1/4 C sugar
1/3 C cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 C room temperature water
4 lg egg yolks, beaten
1/4 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp grated lemon zest
2 tbsp butter

Combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan, then stir in the water. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring it to a boil while stirring frequently. This takes a while, but eventually it will thicken up quickly; just keep stirring and you’ll avoid a bad case of perma-lumps. Once thickened, remove the pan from heat and carefully scoop out a quarter cup of the goo. When I tell you this is hot, I mean that getting even a splatter on your hand will ruin the rest of your day. Whisk that into the beaten yolks, then whisk the yolk mixture back into the pan full of goo. This prevents the eggs from heating up too quickly and scrambling disgustingly.

Put the pan back on medium-high heat once you’ve whisked everything into an even consistency and color, and bring it to a boil again to further thicken. Once bubbling, stir in the lemon juice, zest and butter, and keep cooking and stirring for 2 more minutes. Go ahead and pour it into the crust, leveling it around with a rubber spatula. And now we move onto…

The Meringue:
5 lg egg whites
1/4 tsp cream or tartar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c sugar

Throw the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt into the bowl of your stand mixer and kick it into high. Once soft peaks form, slowly pour in the sugar over the course of about a minute. Once she holds a nice sharp point, pile the meringue onto the lemon filling, and use a fork to fluff it up proudly, as high as your cake-saver will allow. Bake it at 350 for 5 to 7 minutes, until you get a nice golden-brown on just the peaks of the meringue. Chill it for at least 3 hours, but aim for consumption within 24, as meringue tends to seize up unattractively over time.

You may as well take it all.

Make-it-this-way Apple Pie

I’ve noticed a growing cooking trend among my fellow liberals of generally barring salt from dishes, often justified with the argument that it overshadows the important undertones of, say, organic brown rice. While you’re at it, why don’t you withhold your children’s vaccinations and boycott smiling. The absence of NaCl in meats and starches is unflattering to the cook, but easily correctable with a sprinkling of table salt. Omission in baked goods and desserts, on the other hand, borders on a criminal waste of food. If I find that you’ve made a low-sodium version of the following apple pie and no one in your home suffers from heart disease, high blood pressure or kidney disease, I will add your name and/or IP address to my blacklist, a vortex of despair far worse than the sting of deletion from my cookie list.

2 pie crusts (double the recipe used here, do not pre-bake crusts)
1 bag (about half a peck) Cortland apples
1 Gala or Braeburn apple
1 C sugar
1/3 C flour
2 tbsp salted butter
1 tbsp  cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cloves
1 egg

Set your oven to 450. Roll out the dough for the pie crusts before preparing the apples to prevent browning; fit one 1/8″-thick sheet of dough into a glass pie plate, and trim the excess, leaving 1″ of extra dough past the rim. Leave the second sheet rolled out on the board until you’re ready to assemble the pie.

Put the dry ingredients in a small mixing bowl and combine until the spices are evenly distributed. Peel and core the apples. I can’t convey how much better my life has become since purchasing the Williams-Sonoma apple peeler/corer/slicer a few years ago. Everyone I know will eventually get one as a gift, and subsequently have a lot more pie around the house, all the time. If you’re going old school, slice the cored apples into 1/4″-thick rings, then chop the rings in half. Put the apples into a large mixing bowl as you work, and sprinkle in some of the dry mixture after each one. Once you’ve finished the apples, pour in the remainder of the dry mixture and fold until combined.

Pour the apples into the bottom crust, and try to flatten the top layer to prevent tearing your top crust. Scrape out any sugar mixture stuck to the bowl and slap it on top of the apples. Carefully transfer the top layer onto the pie, gently draping it to accommodate the rough terrain. Use your thumbs, forefingers and middle fingers to pinch around the circumference of the crust, sealing the two layers together. Repeat to make sure it’s sealed up tight, then trim off the excess.

Get creative with air vents on the top crust. I like to cut out leaf shapes and overlap them with their corresponding holes, but you can cut 1″ slits in a symmetric pattern if you’d prefer. Cut up the butter and stick a glob in each air vent. Use a whisk to beat the eggwhite, and brush it all over the top and around the ridge. Cut a long strip of aluminum foil and cover up the rim, then bake the pie at 450 for 45 minutes, removing the foil 15 minutes before it’s done. You’ll want to stick a cookie sheet on the bottom rack to catch any syrup bubble-over. Let the pie cool uncovered until it reaches room temperature, then keep it sealed but don’t refrigerate it, otherwise something horrible happens to the flour mixed in with the apples. Now that you know all my secrets, I’m going to need some collateral.

Having celebrated the Great Pumpkin, now we eat him.

Pumpkin What You Will

Pumpkin pie is delicious twice a year, and after I’ve hurt myself eating too much of it on Thanksgiving and then again with the second helping on Christmas, it’s dead to me for the following eleven months. In tartlet form, however, I’m able to enjoy the identical filling year-round. The self-contained unit provides closure after consumption, and there’s no easily accessible mothership to rope you into the “one more sliver” game.

Pie Crust:
(Double the recipe for tartlets, or wind up with half a bowl of pumpkin batter)
1 1/3 C flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick cold butter
4 tbsp cold water
1 egg white, beaten slightly

1 can pumpkin
1 C evaporated milk (used the remainder of the can in your coffee, it’s unbelievable)
3/4 C sugar
2/3 C heavy cream
2 eggs
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Set the oven to 350. Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into 1/2″ cubes and separate them before dropping into the flour. With your fingers, mash the butter chunks together into the flour, separating them into smaller and smaller pieces. Once the mixture looks like couscous, add the water and gather/knead/press the dough until it comes together as one mass. Continue kneading until no loose flour remains in the bowl. Form a ball, set it on a sheet of plastic wrap, and flatten it into a 1″-thick disc. Wrap it up and stick it in the fridge for half an hour.

Sprinkle a pastry board or very clean counter top with 1/4 C flour. Unwrap the dough and flip it over several times in the flour. Give it a few pounds with the rolling pin to wake it up, flip it over, then whack some more. Roll it out to a 1/4″ thickness, flipping it several times in the process to keep it from sticking to the board. Transfer it to a glass pie plate and trim the excess, then fork the circumference (for tartlets, use a metal circle cutter to cut 4″ rounds, then press them into standard-size muffin trays and continue, but skip the weighting and egging steps). Weight the bottom with a pie chain or dry beans and bake it for 10 minutes at 350.

In the meantime, rinse out the bowl you used for the dough and empty the pumpkin out of the can. I open both ends of the can and push it through; it’s vaguely unseemly but saves time. Add the sugar and stir it up with a wooden spoon. Switch over to a whisk to beat in the eggs and vanilla, then add the spices and salt. Pour in the milk and cream while whisking (slowly) and stir well.

Take the crust out of the oven and raise the heat to 425. With a basting brush, paint the rim of the crust with egg white, then pour in the pumpkin (for tartlets, fill to only half-way up the crusts). Bake it at 425 for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 and bake it for another 30 (for tartlets, just bake at 350 for 20 minutes, then start checking). The center should jiggle only barely when it’s done, otherwise give it a few more minutes. Let it cool completely at room temperature before serving or covering and chilling.

You’ll want whipped cream with this. Once again, having read the whole recipe before beginning, you have the necessary components on hand. In a stand mixer (or with a hand-held, but get a book), beat 1 pint of whipping cream on medium until it becomes frothy. Add 1 tbsp vanilla, 2 tbsp sugar, and turn the speed up to high. Stand back and watch the magic. Overdoing it will turn the cream into butter; you’d best sample frequently.

So, we’ve covered heavy cream, boiled down milk and whipping cream. Let’s go for the gold, serve the pie with tall glasses of whole milk, and consider our dairy requirements for the month fulfilled.

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