First, it’s important that I mention today as my son’s birthday. That one fact controls the rest of this narrative.
I used to always bake for John’s birthday. Cakes when he was small; whatever dessert he wanted as he matured. Inevitably, to me, he would ask for something that needed stiffly beaten egg whites and significant skills, especially for me as I was improving my repertoire.
And the thing to remember about egg whites and late August is humidity. More than one cake nearly died. I avoided angel food cakes for years as the result of a very dense orange ‘donut’ cake. (You can picture that.)
By the time he was 9, he was asking for checkerboard cakes (and although the commercial world makes baking pans for these, I learned to form the rings of white and chocolate cake by hand). By the time he was 11, he wanted lemon meringue pie.
The good news is, his wife bakes pies. She’ll probably make a lemon pie for him in the next few days — and today, they are having chocolate cake.
Better for me, of course, is that I like to bake, too. Lemon meringue tarts, coming up.
There are tricks to lemon meringue. The first is to make a sweet and short (lots of fat) crust, and bake it separately (blind). If you do that well, the pie crust retains its shape and doesn’t absorb any liquid from the filling. Do it wrong, and it collapses into a puddle of flour and fat.
Then, there’s the filling. It’s essentially a custard, made with egg yolks, sugar, butter (which works like the milk in the custard). Most recipes require the grated rind and juice of several lemons as well as some water.
And several modern recipes call for flour and cornstarch to thicken the custard.
To make the filling, you must cook it slowly, first the sugar, flour-and-cornstarch, water and butter, then add the lemon rind and juice. After this is thick, you take some of the mix, add it to the eggs, and then add that back to the mix. Time consuming and picky — because you don’t want to curdle the eggs.
Finally, you beat the egg whites with a little cream of tartar — to stabilize them — and some sugar until they are glossy and stiff. Fill the baked pie shell, spread the meringue, and bake for about 10 minutes.
In honor of today’s event, I made a couple of small lemon meringue tarts. I cut the recipe in half and made the pie crust. I learned that small tart pans don’t work well for making a blind crust (that is, an empty crust). The sides are too nearly vertical, and there’s no easy way to keep the crust in proper shape. I also learned that filling a tart pan with ceramic beads doesn’t really work as well as I thought it would.
I took the shells out once they had collapsed, and carefully re-molded the sides, using a fork to mash the crust against the metal.
Then, I made the filling. But for some brain-dead reason, I added all of the ingredients in a bowl and mixed them thoroughly. Once I realized where I’d gone wrong, I transferred the lemon-and-egg mix to the top of a double boiler and cooked it very slowly over barely steaming water. Somehow, the filling actually worked!
Then, on to the meringue. But although it’s not as humid as it might have been, I still had some difficulty. When I put the meringue on the tarts, it was very fluffy and a tad soft.
I baked the tarts until the meringue turned a soft brown. Once they cooled, I served dinner.
We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the child in absentia.
How else to celebrate someone else’s birthday? (Last year, it was Shaker Lemon Pie. Yum.)