Elisabeth Grace is a retired clinical social worker with English and Scottish roots, who shares her home in Columbia County with a demanding blue-eyed cat and a newcomer, a little brown dog named Lilah.
Making a lemon meringue pie from scratch is labor intensive. I need a special occasion to embark on it, like a Thanksgiving dinner or a significant birthday, so when I was invited to the party planned to celebrate two special birthdays one day last summer, I asked one of the two hostesses, wife of one of the birthday boys, if such a pie would be acceptable. “One of my favorites!” she responded enthusiastically.
The red and white checquered cook-book fell open at page 311, as if I made lemon meringue pies every day. I scanned the ingredients, checked what I was missing and went to the supermarket the following day to buy frozen pie-shells (I'm not a purist) and pick out three perfect lemons.
The party was on a Sunday afternoon, so I decided to prepare the pie-shell a day ahead as it must be allowed to cool before being filled. I debated whether to fill the unbaked shell with baking beans or with the cute necklace of silvery beads-- called a “pie chain”-- given to me by my cousin for that purpose years before; we had a habit of trading kitchen tools whenever she visited Old Chatham or I went home to Scotland. In the end, I settled on pricking the pastry all over with a fork, to ensure that it would not develop blisters while baking. The trick worked; when I pridefully pulled the pastry case from the oven and set it, covered, in a safe place to cool, it was smooth and golden brown. While it was cooking I had grated a teaspoonful of lemon rind-- did you know there's also a special tool for that?-- it's called a microplane, and I just happen to have one. I squeezed a cup of juice and put the juice and the lemon zest, in separate containers, in the fridge. I felt I was making splendid progress and went to bed happy.
Early on Sunday morning I set to work, following the recipe to the letter. “Separate the egg-yolks from the whites and beat them well” was the first step, before I mixed the prescribed amounts of sugar, corn-starch and water in a pan and added “a dash of salt” (the least specific of the recipe's instructions-- how much exactly is a “dash”? Is one cook's “dash” identical to another's?)
Stirring constantly, as instructed, I allowed the mixture to come to a slow boil and thicken; in “about five minutes,” as the recipe predicted; it resembled wallpaper paste, and it needed another minute on the stove (with me still “stirring constantly”) after I had spooned a little of the mixture into the egg yolks and then transferred the result (now looking like yellow wallpaper paste) back into the saucepan. I added butter and the lemon zest, blended all together and added the lemon juice very slowly. While the custard was cooling, I beat the egg whites to “soft peaks” with a teaspoonful of lemon juice, and then to a stiffer consistency gradually adding six (or was it five?) tablespoonsful of sugar. I poured the custard into the pie-shell, smoothed the surface and piled the beaten egg-whites on top, carefully ensuring that they kissed the pastry all round the edge so that the meringue would not shrink as the pie baked. It already looked very beautiful and I anticipated acclaim when the time came for it to make its appearance on the dessert table at the party.
Once the pie was in the oven, set on a baking sheet as recommended in the cook-book, I began to clear the counter and to wash what seemed like every bowl, spatula and measuring-spoon I owned. Occasionally, not trusting my timer, I peered through the oven's glass door to check on the browning tips of the crests of meringue, like a range of tiny snow-covered mountain peaks in reverse. Admiring the pie, I wondered briefly if I was perhaps becoming too attached not only to the beauty of the object itself, but also to the impression I believed it would make on other guests at the birthday party.
The time came to take the pie out of the oven. I lowered the oven door, used oven mitts to lift the pie out, planning to set it on the counter to cool. In a split second, the pie, in its foil plate, folded neatly in half, spilling scrambled lemony custard, meringue and pie-crust on the open oven door and a swath of kitchen floor. About half the pie stayed in the dish; it was all I could do not to hurl it to the ground. I heard a loud, cat-scaring wail coming from nearby; it took me a few seconds to recognize my own voice.
Many years ago, as a friend imparted her Tupperware bread recipe to me, she said, “I've never had a failure.” After years of trying out new recipes I wouldn't be able to make such a claim; I've had a flop or two, but again, neither have I ever had as spectacular a failure as the Great Lemon Meringue Pie Catastrophe.
Where had I gone wrong? I had followed the recipe meticulously, not skipping a single step. Now I must inform my hostesses that there would be no lemon meringue pie; I would also have to forego the admiration which I had been sure it would evoke. Cleaning my ego off the oven door and the floor took me quite a while.
Next day, feeling calmer, I studied the wrapping on another pie-shell and read the “Helpful Hints.” I saw what I had missed: “To avoid spilling, leave baked pie on baking sheet when removing from oven.”
Nothing could be more obvious. But sometimes eyes turned heavenwards are blind to hazards underfoot.