20 January 2011

Double Take: Lemon Meringue Pie

What is it about the word meringue? For some reason, I just can’t spell it. Nicely my word processor has spell check so you don’t have to read three different versions of the word throughout the post, but that’s just one of the words with which I have major issues (Sandwich and lingerie also give me fits. Am I the only one who has trouble these words?).

Pretty on the outside! Tabitha and I had a long discussion about the beads on the meringue... some people like them, some people don't because they imply you rushed the cooling process. I say, do what makes you happy!

Oh, but lemon meringue pie, on the other hand, does not give me fits. I love the way it makes your lips pucker but is still clearly a sweet. The lovely, almost flavorless foam on top helps cut the acidity without completely removing the punch from the lemon. It’s one of my absolute favorite desserts of the non-chocolate variety. I came across a recipe several years ago in one of my community cookbooks (I’m not sure if it was from the preschool I both attended and worked at or from the elementary school I attended) and that recipe became my go-to for both lemon meringue and lime meringue pie. Everyone who tried it loved it, particularly when I increased the amount of lemon juice. It was quite simple, only four ingredients in the filling, and came together in a flash. The second time I made it, I accidentally put the zest into the egg whites instead of the egg yolks and the resulting flecked meringue was so pretty that I continued making it incorrectly from then on.

But one of the ingredients gnawed at me. The reason it is so easy to throw together is that it starts with a can of sweetened condensed milk rather than directing you through making a lemon curd or other sort of base for the filling. One of my good friends from Winston-Salem is a food purist and she rubbed off on me a bit. I began to feel that making a lemon meringue pie from sweetened condensed milk is cheating. However, I always made it on the fly, so I didn’t bother to search out a “real” from scratch recipe.

But then I saw one in the all-new Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook. Tabitha and I both love lemon meringue pie (so does Bender for that matter), so this recipe was an easy pick for all of us. I half expected Tabitha to turn hers into lime meringue pie as she is apt to do, but I figured this recipe would be a good start regardless.

Lemon Meringue Pie Recipe, available online here

Lemon Meringue Pie Filling Recipe, available online here

Yeah, I still haven't mastered getting the pie crust to stay in place. Hope the filling fits!

Did you notice I didn’t bother to actually post the recipe here? The pie wasn’t good. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t inedible, it resembled lemon meringue pie, and everyone who ate it liked it, but it just wasn’t a good lemon meringue pie. The recipe was also quite confusing. As in, why does the filling call for 4 egg yolks but the meringue calls for 6 egg whites when you can get enough meringue to cover the pie from 2 egg whites?! Needless to say I did not waste 2 egg yolks and just used 4 for the meringue. I also read the start of the directions many, many times and never felt like I truly understood what was going on. I had never seen a recipe that called for you to stir sugar and cornstarch over heat before adding liquids. Most cornstarch recipes call for you to mix cornstarch with cold water before adding it to the filling so it will dissolve properly. When I am making something completely unfamiliar I generally try to follow the directions thoroughly rather than make changes, so this time I ignored my gut instinct. I regretted that decision.

Phew... the filling didn't go too far up the sides of the pie!

My resulting filling never fully set. It was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon before I put it into the crust, but never became a proper pie filling. (Hey, isn’t that what happened with my Fresh Peach Pie from this cookbook too?) It practically sloshed out of the pie dish when I pulled it out of the oven. Of course, I was serving it the same day so I rushed the cooling process and threw it in the fridge only about half an hour after it came out of the oven (long enough for me to spice the turkey and put it in the oven). In the 6 hours it had in the fridge before serving it never set. Everyone enjoyed the pie that first day (though it was not lemony enough for my taste), but I was the only one who had leftovers. And the leftovers the next day were grainy. It was like I could feel the cornstarch. Eww.

Once I started writing this post I got curious. Exactly what is in sweetened condensed milk? I looked up the recipe for it when I moved here to Germany because I didn’t immediately find it in the store. It’s pretty simple: combine milk and sugar. Slowly heat for three hours. Viola. Sweetened condensed milk. Want to turn that sweetened condensed milk into dulce de leche? Slowly heat three more hours. (Warning: I have not made either, so don’t consider that a recipe!) While very simple, I can understand why someone would want to take a short cut and use a can. So what’s in the can? Well, Borden’s Eagle Brand has two ingredients for the full fat* version: milk and sugar. Even Michael Pollan, food writer, would approve. And I’m certain he would not approve of a lemon meringue pie recipe that calls for ¼ cup of cornstarch (Can you tell I’m currently reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma?).

I’m not saying that every “from scratch” recipe out there is bad, but this one seriously fails. So I’ll stick to my sweetened condensed milk recipe until I get up the guts to try another one that does not call for cornstarch.

* Low fat and non fat sweetened condensed milks have added vitamin A palmitate. Also, I only checked the ingredients on Eagle Brand since that’s what I grew up using. Make sure to check the ingredient list if you go with a different brand.

I'm finally no longer terrified to actually beat to stiff peaks. (Please excuse the split infinitive)

It-was-fine: 5 votes
Never-again: 1 vote

Paula Deen’s Lemon Meringue Pie recipe is almost exactly the same as the one in my community cookbook. The difference? An extra egg. So instead of giving you a bad recipe, I’ll leave you with Paula Deen’s recipe.

Lemon Meringue Pie
from Paula Deen, also available here


1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 egg yolks
1 (8-inch) prebaked pie shell or crumb crust (In the US I use a graham cracker crust, here I use a homemade pie shell)

3 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar

In medium bowl, combine milk, lemon juice, and zest; blend in egg yolks. Pour into cooled crust.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the sugar until stiff. Spread over filling; seal to edge of crust. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until meringue is golden brown.

For Tabitha’s take on Lemon Meringue Pie, head on over to Double the Garlic


  1. The more I think about the filling, I come back to simple lemon curd. I really liked the one I made for the Linzer cookies but it was a little runny. http://doublethegarlic.blogspot.com/2010/01/linzer-star-cookies.html

    That being said, it was the first time I'd made curd. Further, it seems to contain more eggs than I'd like to be using in a standard citrus meringue pie. (How do you think a tangerine meringue pie would taste, by the way? I'm just curious.)

    The pineapple curd I prepared for Hawaiian night came out very well but I don't recall if it was as stiff as lemon meringue pie filling. Its tough to tell in the picture but it still calls for more eggs than I'd like to see used. Maybe we could do some searching to compare lemon/lime/other citrus curds?

    On a different note, I found it odd that the filling wasn't so very yellow but more of a yellow creamy color for the pie. Do you have any idea why that would have happened? Its a real effect not a photoshop issue.

  2. I have no idea if I would like a tangerine pie. I'm leaning towards yes, but I like lemon and lime pies so much that I would not be likely to make or order a different one over my standbys.

    I guess my biggest question about the color of the filling is: Why would it be yellow? The cornstarch and sugar are white, as is the milk. If you have pale yolks, the filling should be quite pale as well since the lemon juice won't impart much color at all.


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