Pies at their peak

We've whipped together some tips on making marvelous meringues

May 31, 2000|By Donna Deane | Donna Deane,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Meringues - beautiful, light, billowy meringue pies - can be lemon, lime, chocolate, banana, rhubarb or graham cracker cream underneath, but there must be meringue on top.

Many cooks are intimidated by these fluffy beauties and take the easy way out by covering their pies with whipped cream. But let's take a closer look at meringues and try to take some of the mystery out of making them. Actually, they're fast and easy to prepare if you follow a few simple tips.

There are two types of meringues in these recipes. Soft meringue is made from egg whites beaten with cream of tartar and then with sugar until stiff peaks form. Italian meringues are made by beating a hot sugar syrup into the egg whites.

The most important thing about making either is ensuring that your bowl and beaters are clean and free of grease. Any fat or grease causes a loss of volume. The size of the bowl is also important; deep, medium-size bowls work the best.

Allow egg whites to come to room temperature before beating; this gives the greatest volume. When separating eggs, be careful not to break the yolk; the fat in the yolk can affect the beaten whites' volume. Crack the eggs over a second bowl so that, if a yolk is broken, the bowl of whites will not be affected.

When making the soft meringue, add the cream of tartar at the beginning of the beating to stabilize the egg whites so they won't deflate so easily. Add the sugar only after the egg whites have reached soft peaks. You can tell by stopping the mixer and lifting the beaters up - the whites should form peaks that fall over softly.

When you add the sugar, it is very important to do so gradually to get a stiff meringue. It is also essential to beat the meringue until it turns glossy. When the beaters are lifted, the egg whites should form stiff, pointed peaks that do not fall over.

Test the egg whites with your fingers at this point. They should not feel gritty. If they do, beat a little longer to dissolve the sugar. Undissolved sugar in meringues forms "beads" of syrup on baked meringues.

Over-beaten egg whites will look too thick and will begin to lose their gloss and look dry.

Italian meringues are made in much the same way, except that the sugar is added in the form of a hot syrup, which cooks the egg whites. It is important to cook the syrup to 238 degrees, but no higher. It is also crucial to add the syrup to the softly beaten egg whites in a fine stream. Remember to slow down your beater when adding the hot syrup so you don't get burned by flying syrup.

Continue beating until the meringue is stiff and cool; then it's ready to be piped onto the tart (unlike soft meringue, which is spooned). An Italian meringue hardens on its own, without further cooking, so use it right away.

When decorating a pie, spoon the meringue into the center of the pie and then push it to the very edge of the filling, so it touches the crust, sealing in the filling. When making the swirls in the meringue, keep the peaks low; if they stand up too high, they will burn during the baking.

Also, don't over-bake the meringue. It should just turn a golden brown. Bake it too long, and the meringue begins to "weep," oozing drops of sugar syrup. This also can be caused by over-beating the egg whites. Cool meringues away from drafts to avoid shrinkage.

Remember that meringue pies are best eaten shortly after baking. Try to avoid making them during humid weather, if you can.

Master Pie Shell

Makes one (9-inch) single-crust pie shell

1 cup flour, plus more for rolling

teaspoon salt

1/3 cup shortening or lard

2 to 3 tablespoons water

Active work time: 10 minutes; total preparation time: 20 minutes

Stir together flour and salt in large glass bowl. Cut shortening into flour until evenly distributed and particles are size of small peas. Sprinkle with water and gently stir with fork until water is blended into pastry and dough begins to form a ball; use your hands to shape. Roll dough out on lightly floured board to 11-inch diameter and lift into 9-inch pie plate, gently pressing dough into bottom and against sides of plate. Flute edges and trim. Prick all over with fork. Bake at 475 degrees until lightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Basic Meringue

Makes meringue for one (9-inch) pie

4 egg whites

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup sugar

Active work and total preparation time: 15 minutes

Combine egg whites and cream of tartar in mixing bowl. Beat until foamy, about 30 seconds.

Continue beating on medium-high speed until egg whites form soft peaks, about 30 seconds.

Gradually beat in sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until stiff peaks form and meringue has a glossy look and sugar is dissolved, 3 to 4 minutes.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

Serves 8

Master Pie Shell, unbaked

1 egg white, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

4 egg yolks

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces, about 4 1/2 cups

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Basic Meringue

Active work time: 35 minutes; total preparation time: 1 hour plus 1 to 2 hours cooling

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