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A perfect meringue pie has a smooth, evenly cooked filling enclosed in a flaky, delicious crust, and is topped with handsome snowy pillows of smooth meringue which do not weep or sag. Creating the ideal meringue pie can be extremely difficult, as the cook faces a number of challenges from the bottom up. The meringue pie must be constructed so that the crust does not get soggy, the filling is cooked all the way through, and the meringue is thoroughly cooked without pulling away from the sides of the dish or burning on top. With trial and error, cooks have developed numerous techniques which will greatly enhance meringue pie success.
Making the perfect meringue pie starts with the crust. Select a crust recipe which will result in light, flaky pastry. After you have made the crust, pre-bake it. To pre-bake a crust, roll it out and set it up in your oiled and floured pie pan. Then either weigh the crust with beans or another smaller pie plate, and bake it in the oven for 20 minutes. While the crust is baking, start to make the filling and set up the other ingredients so that you can assemble the pie as soon as the crust comes out of the oven. The heat of the pre-baked crust will help to evenly cook the filling.
Before you start on the filling of the pie, set up the ingredients for the meringue. The meringue will cook evenly if it is piped over a hot filling, because the heat of the filling will help to cook and set the meringue. For this reason, you want the meringue to be quickly made when the filling is freshly cooked. Measure out all of the ingredients you will need for the meringue, and precook a cornstarch paste to mix with the meringue while you beat it. The cornstarch paste will keep the meringue from weeping or oozing, and will also provide body so that it will not sag.
When the ingredients for the meringue are laid out, start on the filling. Follow the directions carefully, cooking the filling on low heat and stirring frequently so that it does not burn or clump. A variety of fillings can be used for meringue pies including lemon, lime, chocolate, or butterscotch. Most cookbooks provide recipes for several fillings, and you can also feel free to experiment once you have mastered the basics of making a custard filling.
As soon as the filling is done, pour it into the pie crust and start whipping the meringue. Beat the egg whites briskly and evenly, making sure to rotate the bowl so that everything will be beaten together. Most recipes call for a gradual addition of sugar, cream of tartar, and vanilla until the egg whites have begun to reach the point of stiff peaks. Then beat in the cornstarch paste until the egg whites create firm, crisp peaks, and get ready to spread the meringue on the warm filling. Never make the meringue before the filling, as it will sag and lose consistency: it needs to be cooked immediately after being made.
To prevent the meringue from pulling away from the edges, pipe a layer of meringue around the edge of the pie first, making sure to anchor it firmly to the crust at all points. Then start filling in the middle, mounding the meringue into a classic hill like shape. As soon as the meringue pie is assembled, slip it into the oven on the top shelf and bake it as directed: usually for approximately 20 minutes or until the top of the meringue pie starts to turn slightly golden. Set the meringue pie on a rack until it is completely cool before eating or refrigerating, covered.
Making a meringue for a pie is a lot of work, and considering how often they don't turn out, I'm not sure all the effort is worth it. Whipping a half pint of cream is much easier.
However, some people think a lemon pie isn't the same without a meringue on top, and some insist on one for banana pudding, which makes me cringe.
When I was a little girl, if I got pie with meringue on it, I'd eat it, but it wasn't my favorite part, by any means. I ate the meringue off the top then ate the filling, which was what I wanted anyway. A well done meringue is spectacular on top of a pie, though. Visually, it's great.
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