Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Lemon Meringue Merengue

Though down for the count with a headcold, yesterday I decided to make lemon meringue pie for my sweetie, a birthday and Valentine's Day tradition that had fallen by the wayside. But in an uncharacteristic pique of cabinet cleaning frenzy, I had thrown out the old yellow box of Kingsford cornstarch with the recipe on the back, and the elderly Albertsons's box only had glazed chicken recipes printed on the back and sides, which was not useful.

So I cracked open food-encrusted (sign of a good cookbook, is the resident food patina) Silver Palate Cookbook, so lovingly inscribed to Neil from Ingrid Gerstmann so many decades ago. A housewarming present from 1991—when he moved to this cottage. I thought of sweet Ingrid in NY, how she knew Neil from the theatre, dahlingk, how I went to school with her, and how small the world really is.

The scalloped pie crust baked (if only I had kept my grannie's spare dentures, the scalloping process would have gone much faster). Thanks to Jim Henin's old poem, my mind wandered far afield.

I gathered Meyer lemons from the tree. Because of the recent rains they had doubled in size, they looked like schools of bloated yellow pufferfish trapped in a green net made of leaves. Meyer monsters the size of oranges. Forget canary-sized. Or pamplemousse. More like Pamelona. The running of the bulls.

I peeled the rinds of three large lemons off in small wormy slivers (forget the 1/2 teaspoon of grated lemon zest—we were going for the full Diet of Worms with the lemon zester to make up for lost time.) I juiced them, but because of the rains, they weren't very sour. So I added another lemon or three  until I had a large cereal bowlful of juice and rind.

I threw in 3 heaping tablespoons of cornstarch into the bowl of juice and rind to let it soak. And then I looked for little swimmers—TG it was weevil-free. Nothing much likes cornstarch except maybe blankmange pudding and chicken glaze. That was way more juice than what the recipe (recollected in memory) called for, by a factor of three, maybe four.

I pulled the crust from the oven and began assembly.

I washed the French copper bowl down with salt and white vinegar until it glowed like a new penny (and thought of Neil Cook with his small army of salvaged copper pots), I scrubbed the equally country French huge balloon whisk (it looked more like bailing wire than a cooking utensil—no stinkin' stainless steel here!) with a large wooden handle—which hadn't been used for years, maybe longer (both gifts from my Aunt Jane when she was at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris).

I set up the double boiler (also unused for years—there was a time when I baked early and often), and I got down to it.

But when I read The Silver Palate recipe, it was all wrong. Two cups of milk in that much lemon juice? A real curdler. Not what I remembered. My grandmother and Aunt Jane had been adapting their variation of the Kingsford recipe since the middle of the last century.

So I went online, and found Alice Waters' Chez Panisse recipe from 1987, courtesy of the New York Times. I tossed in two eggs, three yolks, sugar and juice, and stirred the mixture in the double boiler, running back and forth from the computer screen to kitchen, oops! Not two whole eggs....then I saw how much butter... A cup? I wasn't making lemon butter FFS. WWJC say? (Julia Childs).

So, I flipped back to the Williams-Sonoma recipe. Closer to what I was looking for. But by that time I was so far off the recipe reservation, I was winging it. More sugar, more eggs. OK. Hey, what about that Limoncello in the back of the cupboard? Vanilla bean sugar? Why not?

Not that much butter. Are you kidding me? A cardiac arrest feature built right in, for Valentine's Day, so I tossed in another yolk to compensate. So much for watching the cholesterol. So I tossed back a capful of Limoncello for good measure.

I whisked the whites, added cream of tartar, noting that it too was from the middle of the last century—as was I, for that matter), that balloon whisked whipped the whites until they resembled glistening clouds in the bright copper bowl the color of a sunrisen sky.

I whisked the lemon curd which had thickened to the texture of fresh cement (maybe that was a bit too much cornstarch and egg yolks? So that's why all the butter—a loob job). I needed 2, maybe 3 more arms—make it a shiva's dozen arms. I was wearing lemon curd in my hair and on my newly washed red cashmere sweater (which I can probably never wash again, as it's desperately trying to shrink its way back to doll-sized despite my best efforts of washing it in creme rinse to relax it and stretching it with s steam iron—but it's red. Crimson red, I tell you.)

By this point, I had gobs of lemon goo in my hair, and no free arms to speak of. Where's that bottle of Limoncello? And by this point, the lemon curd was so stiff, it couldn't boil if it wanted to.

Lightbulb. I'll chiffon it with some meringue. Or was it bouffont? So I tossed in another yolk into the curd mix, added more whites for more meringue madness. Or was it merengue madness? I whipped them some more until my arms ached. Luckily the meringue held its air, from this rather unorthodox treatment—and didn't collapse on me. A real ollie.

Limoncello? Wherefore art thou? Forget Romeo. Give me the freakin' Limoncello, or give me death. By this point, I really wanted to die, I was so tired, And when the meringue resembled the texture of angel wings, I carefully folded in half the whisked whites into the concrete curd until it resembled pie filling. Or a yellow cello sponge.

Then I dressed the pie crust in raspberry jam knickers to keep it from getting a soggy bottom, added the filling, with a meringue chapeau (next time make sure the meringue can clear the height of the broiler shelf). And hoped for the best. Luckily the oven did the trick. Me, I went back to bed to recover from the ordeal. Best pie ever. He has no idea, of course.


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