Tuesday 2 May 2017

A tale of two Lemon Meringue Pies

"I do like a bit of goo," said John. "Gooey meringue."
"Lemon meringue tart?" I asked. I was keen to improve my own.

This is a tale of two tarts. Or should that be 'pies'? I think any difference there was, semantic or actual, has long since receded past the point of meaning and is now only useful to start an argument in the pub.

For John's birthday, I wanted to really 'goo' it up so went for the chef's favourite: Italian meringue. I did another for my mate Mahan; old skool, with French meringue, gently baked for a golden crust.

Which is best? Will you fall for the age old clickbait of asking a question at the start?

A successful LMP is all about contrast, of flavour and texture. Sweet, crisp pastry filled with a semi set lemon custard filling, almost puckingerly sharp and crowned with light, fluffy, so sweet meringue with a crisp, toasted top. For both I used a sweet shortcrust pastry; my usual Roux recipe. For the filling I knew I didn't want to use cornflour, wanting to avoid that gelatinous thing. 
That'll be a lemon

I'd made Serious Eats lemon bars last year and really liked the texture and tang. This would be the starting point for my custard. That recipe also makes a point of sieving the lemon zest. Some recipes don't do this and I have no idea why. I'm not partial to picking what may as well be bits of inert yellow plastic out of my teeth. Mind, worse than that is not using zest at all. That really confounds me. You might as well use battery acid (not really) for all the lemon flavour the juice bestows. Bizarre.

Although thought of as a British classic, pretty much every Western nation claims a pudding of lemon custard with pastry as its own; the French, Swiss and Americans especially.

I want to share this recipe with you I found on the fascinating Foodtimeline website. It's from England, possibly East Sussex, 1769.

A Lemon PuddingBlanch and beat eight ounces of Jordan almonds with orange flower water. Add to them half a pound of cold butter, the yolks of ten eggs, the juice of a large lemon, half the rind grated fine, work them in a marble mortar or wooden basin till they look white and light. Lay a good puff paste pretty thin in the bottom of a china dish and pour in your pudding. It will take half an hour baking.
- The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald

Isn't that fantastic? What I love about old recipes is that time and place fall away and you are just talking to someone who cares about their food. I understand this recipe exactly. It makes perfect sense and sounds delicious; perhaps even modern! Food is eternal, as is a cook's pride. I'm recently returned from Kerala in South India where I had many fabulous, stimulating conversations with chefs. Language and culture matter little when you're discussing recipes. The world is one kitchen.

[Takes off Kaftan and Lennon glasses.]

I'll take the recipe up to the meringue mark and then split off, Italy one way, France the other. Puts us somewhere in the Alps I think.

Lemon Meringue Tart
Serves 10

Pastry base

Made in a 23cm tart tin with sides of about 3cm. A removable base is very useful.

For the base make a sweet shortcrust pastry. I use a food processor to pulse everything together. Blend 250g plain flour, 100g icing sugar, sifted and pinch of salt with 100g unsalted butter cubes,  until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Gradually pulse in 2 eggs, beaten. When the mix begins to come together, gather into a ball, remove from the machine and knead a few times until it is smooth. Flatten into a round, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for an hour. if you don't relax the dough your pastry will shrink. You don't want this. It's also much easier to roll a cold dough.

Once relaxed, roll out the pastry until it's a few inches bigger than your tin. Drape the pastry over the tin and gently ease it up to allow it to drop to the bottom of the tin. Don't squidge it in, it will thin and tear. Carefully push the pastry into the corners (to ensure a nice sharp shape) and leave an overhang of around 1cm. Cutting with a scissors if necessary. Repair any holes with additional pastry. Prick all over with a fork, including the sides, to prevent the pastry bubble rising. Place the tin in the fridge for another half hour. 

Place the tin on a baking tray. This makes it much easier to handle and you don't risk knocking chunks off the delicate crust. Blind bake (I use ceramic beans in scrunched up baking paper) for 20 mins at 180°C.

The finished case with eggwashed interior.
Carefully remove the baking beans. And now while the pastry is still warm and pliable, using a rolling pin, roll across the hung over pastry edge, pressing down to cut a perfect edge. You will need to rotate the tin and roll a few times to get a clean cut.

I much prefer this technique to sawing away with a blade as invariably crispy bits fly off.

Eggwash the insides of the pastry (one egg with a little milk) and return to the oven for around another 20 minutes. You want a deep gold colour. The eggwash makes the pastry a little more water resistant and so helps keep the case crispy when you add the custard. 

Let the tart cool before you add the custard. I tend to keep mine in the tin until just before serving.

Lemon custard filling
Use a good, heavy pan. You don't want hot spots scrambling your eggs.

Pastry case filled with thick lemon custard
In the pan mix: 70g of cubed unsalted butter, 3 large eggs, 135g egg yolks (about 8 large eggs) 400g caster sugar
Pinch of salt, 
310g lemon juice, from about 8 large unwaxed lemons. Into this zest 10g of zest (probably four lemons).

You can do this traditionally which takes FOREVER, or you can use my custard technique. Use a food thermometer. Over a medium heat bring the mix to around 65°C - you will start to see boil bubbles forming at the sides of the pan - and then stir constantly until it starts to thicken at around 78°C. Immediately chill the pan in cold water - the sink is fine. 

Sieve the mix into a jug. You'll need to push it through with the back of a spoon or ladle. This removes any zest and bits of solidified egg that would otherwise marr the mouth feel.

Pour the custard into the pastry case, cover with foil or paper and chill until needed but not more than a few hours.

Which Meringue? The Mont Dolent of decisions.

French or Italian. Up to you.

French is 'traditional' and as it's baked gives you the crunchy topping. It won't keep long though so has to be made just before serving.

Italian, made by whisking whites with a hot sugar syrup keeps for days in the fridge but can't be baked. No crispy crown but a much creamier texture. Italian is safe for pregnant people too as it is completely cooked.

You might want to refer to my egg white whisking guide.

Oh, I weigh my egg whites now. Not only because I usually have a container full in the fridge but also because eggs vary so much in size.

Whisk 240g of eggwhite (*about* 6 large eggs) to firm peak stage in a very clean bowl. Incrementally add 300g of caster sugar and continue to whisk fast until the mix is super white shiny and firm. It should not feel grainy between your fingers. If it does, the sugar can leach out during cooking which means soggy things underneath.

The general rule with French btw, is 50g of sugar per large egg white.

Pipe directly onto the chilled lemon pie custard or just pile on and freeform with a fork. Bake immediately for 40 mins at 150°C until the meringue is crusting. The egg white insulates the custard underneath so don't worry too much about that melting.

Finished with French

Good layering and the meringue still very light and fluffy

This is different to French that you may be more familiar with. Italian meringue has a creamier texture than French, needs no further cooking and is stable for hours. French will dissolve back to egg and sugar after ten minutes or so. Italian meringue is made by adding a 120°C sugar syrup to whisked egg whites and continuing to whisk.

Here I took 240g of egg white (about six large egg) and added a syrup made from: 6 tablespoons of water, 360g caster sugar and three teaspoons of glucose syrup which helps prevent sugar crystallisation. 

Bring the egg white mix to soft peaks and then dribble in the hot syrup. And yes, this means knowing how long the whites will take and the syrup to heat. Experience is all here. You then continue to whisk until the meringue cools to room temperature. Without an electric mixer you'll need biceps of Thor (or perhaps Ganesh - ha). I used a tip from the always brilliant seriouseats.com website and rubbed a slice of lemon around the bowl first. The acidity helps stabilise the egg whites while you whisk.

You can now store the meringue until needed. I tend to keep mine in these disposable blue piping bags, clipped at either end.

Pipe the meringue and for extra flavour and showmanship, toast lightly with a blow torch, holding the flame at right angles to colour the edges.

Finished with Italian

Of the two. the Italian looks better but I might prefer the French for it crunch. Sadly I have no pictures of the Italian tart's interior. I gave the slicing job to John (of the goo, if you remember) and... well, I shouldn't have. My fault. It had been a long, merry night and the servings were a little deconstructed. Deconstructed like it had been dropped from a passing plane. No one seemed to mind.

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