For the second installment of our dinner + movie series, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to tackle three things I’ve never made before and have always been intimidated by while cooking dinner for 15.
The first dish I undertook — and one of the last we ate — was the lemon meringue pie.
I’ll admit it: egg whites make me anxious. I’ve now made custard ice cream bases so many times that I’d probably only scramble the yolks if somehow Ed McMahon showed up at my apartment door with a bigger-than-me-sized check. But whites are another story. It seems like they’ll get all spooked if you just look at them the wrong way — there can’t be a speck of yolk, a trace of fat of any kind, in fact, on your beating apparatus or vessel; the whites whip easier if they’re room temp (or is it cold?), overbeat them and the protein strands will shrink or just collapse on you. I love me some Pavlova, but all that meringue makes me want to run screaming for the hills. Also, did I mention that I didn’t have any kind of electric mixer at all? Until recently, that is. Somehow I ended up with two stand mixers, and it seems a shame not to put them to work.
(Before all the hardcore egg beaters out there with their guns of steel start protesting and insisting that this should all be done by hand, I’d just like to point out that it took more than seven minutes of stand-mixer beating before my whites got to the stiff-peak stage. And god knows what that translates to in hand-beating years. I’ll make mayonnaise with a wooden spoon before I do whites by hand.)
Turns out that, armed with the right small kitchen appliances and proper respect for the egg white’s particular ways, meringue is not so hard after all.
A few things I learned from making lemon meringue pie:
1) Best not to get all cocky about how well you separate eggs. Don’t assume you won’t a) screw one up and end up trying to scoop a yolk (unsuccessfully) out of the container of whites; or b) that there won’t be a bad egg in the bunch, even if you just got the bunch at the Greenmarket that morning.
1a) Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. That is, do four or five whites in one vessel and then move on to another to avoid ruining all your whites in one go.
1b) Bad eggs smell terrible. Not like sulfur at all — like badness. Plain ol’ badness.
2) It takes a long time to get those whites to stiff peaks.
2a) But boy, are they ever pretty.
It also happens that I’m intimidated by pastry dough. I’ve had some fall apart on me, others become tough shoe-leather, and still others that tasted like crayons. This time I read up on the latest in crust technology and got three tubs of leaf lard and threw some duck fat in the dough for good measure. That took care of the flavor. Also, it’s true what everyone tells you — keep everything really, really cold. That’ll take care of the structure. And lastly, practice makes perfect:
If you’re gonna make one, you might as well make three. (Here, lemon meringue, egg custard, and rhubarb.)