Our friends have sold their apartment and the deal concludes this coming week, so they are having a farewell dinner for a few of us this evening. My task is to bring the pudding. I had planned to make Heidi’s Tongan coconut tart, which we came across on our recent holiday there (a kind of lovely gooey coconut custard in a crunchy case). Unfortunately, one of the other guests hates coconut, so I’ve had to have a re-think. I WILL do the coconut tart, but you will have to wait a bit longer for that one.
I love lemon puddings – and the sharper, the better. This lemon meringue pie bears very little relation to the ones we all loved when we were kids. Do you remember the little packs of the dried custard mix with the tiny lemon oil capsule inside, bursting with (no doubt deeply artificial) lemon flavour. The whole thing was mouth-puckeringly sweet, but it was a definite favourite.
When I started college, I moved on to the lemon filling from Cesarani & Kinton’s ‘Practical Cookery’. It was similarly sweet and bland, although I thought it was the height of sophistication back in the 1970s, coming after the Birds instant version. I have just checked the recipe out of curiosity (I still use the book for loads of things, even though it is only held together with many years-worth of different sellotape and has no cover), and was alarmed to see that the recipe suggests only one lemon. Mine uses five or six! I guess, back in 1974, lemons were expensive and not necessarily available all year round, as they are now. Luckily, everyone around here has lemon trees in their gardens and the fruit stays on the trees all year – though it does get very pithy and less juicy as the year goes on. We also have tons of limes at the moment, but I couldn’t bring myself to stray away from tradition, so lemon it is.
Lots of my friends tell me they are terrified of making meringues. There is only one secret: make sure absolutely everything you are using (beaters, bowl, etc) are newly washed in soapy water and then very well rinsed in hot water and dried with a super-clean tea towel. If there is even the slightest hint of grease or detergent on any of your equipment, the egg whites won’t expand. I always open a new bag of sugar too, lest my sloppy culinary practices have somehow allowed a bit of grease to enter the sugar container on a spoon or something.
The other important thing is your choice of mixing bowl. This should be glass, ceramic or stainless steel – definitely NOT plastic under any circumstances. Plastic bowls are made from oil, and oil attracts oil. It is almost impossible to ensure that a plastic bowl is grease free, even if it has been through the dishwasher.
When separating the eggs, break each one and collect the whites one at a time in a ramekin, before tipping each one into your bowl of whites. If one of your egg yolks break into the white (it happens almost every time I make a meringue), give up on that one and save it for a scramble or a cake, and start again with a new egg and a clean ramekin (and make sure you don’t have yolk on your fingers). The tiniest speck of egg yolk in the white will scupper your meringue.
I normally make an extra-short sugar pastry for the base of the tart, but today I have decided on a biscuit base with a hint of ginger, which goes so well with lemon. This decision was made on many counts: a) the biscuit base will have less butter than pastry, so our collective bottoms might not get quite so large; b) I didn’t have enough butter in the fridge and couldn’t be bothered to walk to the shop; c) I would have had to faff about blind-baking and all of that malarkey; d) I’d already bought the digestive biscuits ready for the abandoned coconut tart, and to leave them in the cupboard would be asking for trouble…
I make my meringue for this pie in the same way that my Mum always makes hers – just egg whites and sugar, and a long slow cook in the oven, to guarantee a super crunchy top. I’m really not keen on the current fashion for practically raw meringue with a blow-torched top. Horrible.
If you prefer your meringue a bit more mallowy, by all means add a teaspoon each of cornflour and either wine vinegar or apple vinegar right at the end of the beating process. You can also cook it at a slightly higher temperature for a shorter time if you like your meringue softer in the middle – just watch out that it doesn’t get too browned.
Very lemony lemon meringue pie
Serves 8 – 1o
You will need a flan dish or tart tin, well buttered – mine is 26cm, but a couple of centimetres either way is fine.
For the base:
250g digestive biscuits (or use a mix of ginger snaps and digestives, or other biscuits)
120g butter (plus extra for greasing the dish)
2 teaspoons ground ginger, mixed spice or cinnamon (optional)
For the filling:
Zest of 3 lemons
Juice of 5 – 6 lemons (you need approx 200ml of juice in total – if you are not quite there, top up with a bit of extra water)
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons cornflour (that’s using a 15ml measuring spoon, not some great antique serving shovel that your granny gave to you)
3 egg yolks (keep the whites for the meringue – see above for separating)
For the meringue:
4 egg whites (save the extra yolk for a cake or an omelet or something)
125g caster sugar (I used granulated, as we don’t get caster here, and it was fine, but caster dissolves much more easily if you can get it)
1 teaspoon each of cornflour and apple or wine vinegar (optional – see above)
Break up the biscuits and put them in the food processor. Whizz until you have fine crumbs (if you don’t have a food processor, seal the biscuits in a freezer bag and whack with a rolling pin or heavy book until you have crumbs).
Melt the butter and pour into the crumbs and whizz again, along with the ginger or mixed spice or cinnamon (if using). (If you smashed your biscuits by hand, melt the butter in a saucepan and then add the crumbs and spice to the pan and mix well).
Make sure your dish or tin is well buttered and tip in the crumb mix.
Spread the crumbs using the back of a spoon, making sure it goes up the sides of the dish as well. Give it a good press down with the back of the spoon so that the top is smooth and there are no loose crumbs. Refrigerate while you make the filling.
Put all the filling ingredients into a small, preferably non-stick, pan and give everything a good stir.
Then cook over a gentle heat, stirring all the time. You do need to be patient – use a silicone spatula or wooden spoon for stirring, rather than a whisk, to make sure there is no filling starting to cook at the edge of the pan – you don’t want bits of scrambled egg in your pie filling. Once the mixture is just starting to bubble, it should thicken perceptibly and coat the back of a spoon easily.
Remove from the heat and pour onto the biscuit base. Allow to cool completely before you top with the meringue.
Pre-heat the oven to 140C.
For the meringue, using an electric whisk, whisk the whites until completely stiff. The mix should hold its shape completely and you should be able to turn the bowl upside down with no egg white running out.
Add the sugar a little at a time, whisking well in between additions. Once all the sugar is incorporated, keep whisking until the meringue is thick and glossy. If you are using vinegar and cornflour, add them now and whisk in briefly.
Tip the meringue topping over the cooled filling and use a fork or knife to spread to the edges, piling it up a little in the middle if you wish. Use the back of a fork to make peaks on the top of the meringue – this will give you some scrummy extra-crunchy bits.
Bake for one hour until the meringue is very crispy to the touch and starting to colour slightly. Cool completely before serving. If you have leftovers, refrigerate them – the meringue will be slightly more chewy the next day, but just as delicious in a different way.
Evidence of lemon meringue pie-scoffing (and wine drinking, ooops).