You've Got A Friend In Me...

I am not a person who needs an excuse to bake; I will bake when I am feeling bored, when I need an outlet for stress, or just because. Having a purpose behind my hobby can make for a nice change of pace though. There is something to be said for the unique satisfaction that comes from baking a cake for someone's birthday, for example, or to wow some dinner guests. Hence, it should come as no surprise that when Jess asked for my help in making a lemon meringue pie for her mother's birthday, I enthusiastically volunteered my services.

Evidently, lemon meringue pie is Jess' mom's favorite dessert, and Jess had never made one, so she turned to me because I have more baking experience. I didn't let the fact that I've never made a lemon meringue pie stop me from offering to help, since I'm always looking to expand my culinary skill set. Besides, I'd made lemon curd before, for the masterpiece of a birthday cake I made for Justin's birthday back in 2011, I've had a few experiences with making meringue, and I've perfected the art of pie crust. How hard could it be to fuse all three elements? Plus, I don't even like lemon meringue pie, so giving Jess a hand would give me the opportunity to try out a recipe I wouldn't have experimented with otherwise.

Initially, I had planned to have Jess over to bake a practice pie, and then send her off on her own to make the actual birthday pie. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that Jess wouldn't have the proper tools in her kitchen to replicate the recipe in her own kitchen. Friends don't let friends hand whip egg whites to stiff peaks for a meringue, so I decided to cut out the extra step and just invite her over to make the final pie together.

For the crust, I turned to my trusted Cook's Illustrated recipe, and luckily for me, I found a pie crust all ready to go in my freezer, so I didn't even have to make a new one. (This whole freezer inventory thing is really paying off!) For the rest of the pie, I turned to Alton Brown, after happening to catch an rerun of Good Eats recently on the subject of lemon meringue pie. It seemed like a good enough starting point, so I opted not to look further.

With a sous chef in the kitchen, making the pie went much faster than I would have expected. Jess was in charge of juicing the lemons and carefully whisking together the water, corn starch, and sugar base for the lemon curd so as not to create lumps. I rolled out the pie crust and transfered it to the pan, and worked on separating all the eggs. Since I have more experience with making custards from all those ice creams I've tried over the years, I handled the tempering of the egg yolks, but then moved over to monitor the meringue while Jess took over the lemon curd. All in all, I was shocked by how quickly it all came together, and how simple everything felt, but that could just be the effect of the confidence I've built in my skills over the years.

I did have trouble getting the meringue on top of the pie, as the instructions said to do it while the lemon curd was still warm, and it would ooze out of the crust with the slightest application of pressure. As a result, I couldn't get the topping to create the lovely swoops and swirls that one typically associates with the dish, but Jess reassured me, promising that, "If it looked too perfect, no one would believe that I helped!"

The pie was perfectly golden brown when it emerged from the oven, but it was still very wobbly. I was very concerned about how Jess would manage getting it home, especially since she had taken the bus to us instead of driving. She promised to take a cab home, but I was still very leery. I really should have just asked Justin to drive her home (I don't drive in the dark unless it's an emergency because I don't see well at night), but our car was covered in snow, and I didn't want to volunteer him to go clean it off unless it was his idea.

In the end, my anxiety proved to be well-founded: I got a text from Jess after she got home, saying that the lemon curd had leaked all over the taxi seat, and continued to drip as she walked the short distance to her building. The meringue was intact, but she had lost quite a bit of the filling. I was a little crushed that the pie wasn't perfect for Jess' mom, but hopefully it will still taste fine, and she will be touched by all the effort Jess went through to make it for her.

Even though I didn't get to eat any of it (and wouldn't have wanted to anyway), I still had a great time baking with Jess and helping her surprise her mom. Hopefully, she learned a few things as well that she'll be able to put into practice in her own baking endeavors. Truth be told, however, she is more than welcome to come be my pastry apprentice any day!

Lemon Meringue Pie
adapted from Alton Brown

Lemon Filling:

4 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 (9-inch) pre-baked pie shell
1 recipe Meringue, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 375.

Whisk egg yolks in medium size mixing bowl and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine cornstarch, water, sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine. Turn heat on medium and, stirring frequently, bring mixture to a boil. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and gradually, 1 whisk-full at a time, add hot mixture to egg yolks and stir until you have added at least half of the mixture.

Return egg mixture to saucepan, turn heat down to low and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 more minute. Remove from heat and gently stir in butter, lemon juice, and zest until well combined. Pour mixture into pie shell and top with meringue while filling is still hot. Make sure meringue completely covers filling and that it goes right up to the edge of the crust. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until meringue is golden. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Make sure pie is cooled completely before slicing.

Meringue Topping:

4 egg whites
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 tablespoons sugar

Place egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually add sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form, approximately 1 to 2 minutes. Use to top lemon filling.

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