Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day Lemon Pies

Last Sunday was Mother's Day. This is of particular note, since it refers to a date that has become vitally important to Minnesota culture. Mother's Day has usurped the rightful place and date of the first great holiday: Fishing Opener.

"Ya, sure, da D.N.R. has gone and moved da Opener to da fiteenth a May, don'cha know.
Saay! Are we gettin' our full length season anymore den?? Sumthin' should be said about dat right dere."

So, I checked. We still get a whole season for our license fee...

I have been lucky enough to have known a Mother and a Mother-in-law, and now that they have both passed on, the matriarch of the family, Mary, has been gracious enough to include my household in sharing her day. Lemon Pie is Mary's favorite pie, and it is mine as well. This is why today's recipe makes two pies. One is not enough. It just wouldn't be right.

I freely admit that I learned to make a lemon pie from Alton Brown, of the t.v. show 'Good Eats'. There is not much here that was not stolen directly from him, so please, if you really want to learn how to make a good lemon pie, head over to You-tube and watch AB's videos - they are excellent!

I start off with around two and a half cups of all purpose flour, (500 grams) and add a stick and a half of softened butter, a little at a time.. oh, yeah, that is salted butter. And add a healthy teaspoon of salt, up to two teaspoons if you use Kosher. Yup, that is a lot of butter - but don't worry about that half-stick that is left over - it will be added later. Right now you just focus on adding that quarter stick of lard in as well...If you have a food processor, this will take about 30 seconds. I do not have one, so I improvised and use the wire whisk from my Kitchenaid blender. I usually mix the four and salt first, then blend in the butter, and finally add the lard. As long as you do not add any water, you won't get much gluten formation, and you can safely blend the flour, salt and fats as long as you need without fear of making a tough dough.

I like to blend the flour and fats until the dough starts to ball up a little. Then, with the mixer off, reach in and make a fist in the dough. If it balls up nicely without crumbling, it is ready for a little water spritzing.

AB uses just a few squirts. I end up using at least a tablespoon. Still, you have to admit the sprayer is showy, and it makes a point: the less water that gets mixed in, the less gluten will develop, which makes for a tender flaky crust.

Once I get some water added, I wrap it in plastic or a zip lock bag and put it in the fridge for fifteen minutes.

This is a good time to prepare the lemons!

Select 4 large brightly colored fresh lemons. And yes, it matters!

Grate off two healthy Tablespoons of zest, more if it is close to Mother's Day and you need to work on your puckering. Make sure to take only the bright zest. The white pith underneath will make your pie bitter. Once the zest has been removed from the lemons, cut, squeeze, and strain out the seeds. You will need one cup of juice. Any more or less and you will need to tinker with the amount of corn starch, and let me state that this tinkering has not worked out very well for me in the past...

This is the time where we use that quarter stick of butter we talked about above. Add the zest, lemon juice, butter, and a half teaspoon of salt in the bowl and put it next to the stove for ready access later.

Now would be a good time to wash your wire whisk in hot water and get it really dry. Water messes with meringue. Not as bad as yolk, but it will cause the meringue to weep when you bake it.

This is also a good time to separate a dozen egg whites. Reserve eight or nine egg yolks for the custard, and save three yolks for another project.


What was that? Oh, pardon me, save the remaining yolks to fix for your dogs.

When I get eggs from Sister Demeter I only need eight. They are so yellow they are almost orange. Happy chickens make for great eggs!

When I use eggs from the store I use nine yolks.

If you get a little yolk in with the whites, the meringue will whip up beautifully, and will lead you to believe that you are a wonderful cook. The minute you look away, it will deflate like a blown tire. Trust me on this one. If you get a little yolk in with the whites, remove it with a spoon or just start over.

It is that important - a drop of yolk will make the meringue deflate.

Whisk the egg yolks and put them next to the lemon for use in the custard.

If there is a digital timer by your stove, you are in good shape for later.

Being a left-handed guy, (and the fact that we only have counter on the left) I line up my bowls by the stove:

I put the egg whites and about a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar in the fridge for later use.
Take out the dough, put down a sheet of wax or parchment paper, and cover the dough with a second layer of paper.

Slowly start to roll out the dough until you get the thickness you want. Then, peel the top layer of paper off, and then simply put it back in place.

This lets you pick up both sheets of paper, with the dough sandwiched inside, and flip the whole thing over. Now peel off what is the new top sheet of paper.

Yeah, I know, that photo shows no paper under the dough. It was a screwup, and I forgot to take a replacement photo.

Like Julia Child said, "Never Apologize!"

Take a pie plate, lay it over a section of the rolled out dough that looks to have the best coverage, slide your hand under the bottom paper, and flip the whole thing over. Peel off the paper that was loosened earlier, and trim the dough. Got a crack or space? Just fill it in. Fork the dough to prevent bubbling, and send the pie shells, one at a time, to the 350F oven till they just start to brown.

The low temp browning is a tedious thing, but at higher temps the dough will 'catch' and turn brown too quickly. If you get just a light shade of brown it really adds flavor to the crust. Take the shell out, bake the second one, and place both in a safe place to cool. I like to set them on the bottom of an up-side-down cookie sheet. Yes, I know the picture shows them on a cooling rack. Strange things happen when I get busy.

Now, the custard. Add 2/3rds of a cup of corn starch (100 grams), two and a half cups of sugar
(about 500 grams) and three cups of water, (600 grams) to a sauce pan set on medium heat.

Using a whisk that fits your pan, start to stir. Once the mixture starts to bubble, set your timer to a full minute. The point of this is to completely cook the corn starch, and unleash it's power to grab the water, sugar, egg yolks, etc. Otherwise, the custard will either be sloppy or it will weep after it cools.

After a full minute of bubbling, pour out about a cup of the mixture into the whisked egg yolks. This 'tempering' of the eggs is important.

Trust me on that one, too. If you curdle the eggs they not only lose texture, but they also get a funky flavor. It is a little tricky to pour and whisk at the same time, but you will get the hang of it pretty quickly. If I think of it I 'cuddle' the bowl with a wet towel around the base.

As soon as I have poured out some of the mixture into the eggs, I whisk with my left hand, and I use my right hand to add the ingredients we placed with the lemon juice into the sauce pan. This slows the cooking in the sauce pan just enough to let me whisk the egg yolks without burning the custard. Once the yolks are tempered, add them back to the same sauce pan and start stirring. When the heat rebuilds, and the custard starts to bubble again, time it for one full minute, stirring all the while. This seems like a lot of work, but it makes for a really smooth and creamy custard. And it seems like that half stick of butter from before melts in exactly sixty seconds, just in case you forget to set the timer.

When the minute is up, grab a spatula and pour the custard off into the waiting pie shells. It is nice if you can set the pan under hot running tap water right away - it cleans up much more easily.

Get the egg whites out of the fridge and into the mixer, set on high. You will hear the speed slow as the meringue starts to thicken; add a couple of tablespoons sugar (to taste) to the mixer. The bowl will be three quarters full when the meringue is ready, and it will make stiff peaks when you pull out the whisk. After the first time you try this you can do it by ear!

Using as large a spatula as you have, spread the meringue on the pie and spin the plate on the cookie sheet to get a nice, round effect.

I made mine a little sloppy looking, as you can see, because I forgot to put it on a sheet so that it would spin easily. At ten p.m., I liked it that way just fine...

Once you have one pie ready, pop it into the same 350F oven and prepare the second pie.

You do have to watch the oven. If I said that the crust turns quickly, I will also tell you that meringue can turn just as quickly as a campfire S'more in the hands of a ten year old.

If you pay attention, it comes out a light brown with no weeping. If you have weeping, there was some water introduced to the meringue by mistake.

Let it cool well before trying to serve. This has proven to be a real favorite around the block!


  1. Looks amazing! There must be meringue in the air everywhere, I have just been reading about pavlova on another blog. Wish I had chickens, but there are too many urban foxes round here.... And you are sooo right one pie wouldn't be enough when they look that good :)

  2. Yum! That looks great. A completely different look to my 'peaky' one...actually, I'm not even sure two pies would be enough?