Culinary conquests, part i

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.)


7 Responses to “Culinary conquests, part i”

  1. 1 Sharon May 12, 2009 at 1:13 am

    How beautiful are your pies! They look gorgeous, great job.

  2. 2 Sarah May 12, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Wow! Very nice!

    And tell me about those nasty bad eggs!! I made this almond torte ( for a friend’s birthday (very yummy, by the way) and was punished for my irreverent attitude towards the golden rule of egg separating: never put them all in the same bowl!! I had to stop the whole thing and go get another dozen eggs…

  3. 3 lsoutiere May 13, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Bravo! Beautiful. Where did you find your leaf lard? I had to special order it at the farmer’s market last time, and would love to know where I could get it on a lark.

  4. 4 winyang May 13, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    I get my leaf lard at the Union Square Greenmarket — Flying Pigs Farm always have some at their stand, and apparently Tamarack Hollow has some on occasion too. I’m not sure where you could get it on a lark; it’s such a kerfuffle to make, and so few butchers render their own any more. You could try using duck fat too. That’s just as good, perhaps even better, and much easier to find on short or no notice.

  5. 5 medeamelana October 7, 2009 at 8:06 am

    If you want to try something truly scary, try making microwave meringues. The recipes all make it sound trivial but it is in fact extremely hard to get right.

  1. 1 Culinary conquests, part ii: chicken that tastes like bacon « Fat is flavor Trackback on May 14, 2009 at 12:16 pm
  2. 2 Fat is flavor Trackback on June 24, 2009 at 3:05 pm

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