All American Lemon Meringue Pie
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Who can resist biting into a luscious slice of summertime when lemon meringue pie is on the menu? It’s the perfect combination of a sweet and tart custard filling nestled between a flaky golden crust and a billowing, toasty topping. No wonder it’s one of America’s favorite desserts!
This delicious taste sensation first appeared at the dinner table in 1806 when pastry shop owner, chef, and instructor, Elizabeth Goodfellow, presented her lemon pudding to a group of students at her popular cooking school in Philadelphia.
Unlike puddings today, Mrs. Goodfellow’s recipe was richer, calling for 10 eggs — three whole eggs plus the yolks of seven were whisked together in a stainless-steel saucepan over medium heat with granulated sugar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and lemon zest. Once the mixture thickened while stirring constantly, she would pour the lemon curd into a bowl and stir in cubed, unsalted butter until gently mixed.
Never one to waste anything in the kitchen, Mrs. Goodfellow decided to incorporate the leftover egg whites with sugar, whipping the ingredients together
until stiff. She then spooned it over the cooled lemon pudding, baking it for approximately 20 minutes until the meringue was lightly toasted. Sometimes she’d serve just the pudding and meringue, or she’d fill a blind (pre-baked) pie crust for special occasions.
Meringue has been a delicacy for centuries, with countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, and Poland claiming to have invented the classic confection and dessert. Depending on how it’s baked, meringue can be light and fluffy as a dessert topping or crisp and chewy as a base for ice cream, fruit, and whipped cream.
In 1720, Italian pastry chef Gasparini was credited with perfecting meringue to a different level. He worked in the Swiss village of Meiringen, developing a following of fans who bought up dozens of his “small kisses” on display at the bakery. Gasparini piped his creations with a pastry bag, baking and drying each one thoroughly in a slow oven. They were the perfect pocket for all sorts of colorful and mouthwatering fillings. He also topped cakes and other creations with the fluffy meringue that we know today.
Lemons and other citrus fruits were a rarity in the United States in the early 1800s, but Mrs. Goodfellow was delighted with a supply of fresh fruit from arriving ships at the port in Philadelphia. She incorporated the tangy taste into an array of desserts, teaching her students how to add citrus to many a receipt — the word for recipe at that time.
One of Mrs. Goodfellow’s graduates was a bright and ambitious woman, Eliza Leslie, a prolific writer of children’s books, magazines articles, cookbooks, and etiquette guides. She was instrumental in helping promote the popular lemon pudding/pie dessert by word-of-mouth and frequent mentions in local publications. Her 1847 cookbook, The Lady’s Receipt Book: A Useful Companion for Large and Small Families, helped spread the word nationally, inspiring homemakers to make this delicacy in their kitchen.
One individual was Nancy Breedlove, an innkeeper in rural Illinois who hosted Abraham Lincoln for several weeks when he was a lawyer, traveling the countryside trying court cases in the area. One day, thrilled with a gift basket of fruit, she decided to bake a lemon meringue pie for her guests. Lincoln was completely enamored when biting into the scrumptious desert. Rumor has it that he devoured more than one slice, asking Mrs. Breedlove to bake the pie more often.
One evening after supper, Lincoln asked Mrs. Breedlove to please write down the recipe so he could share it with his wife, Mary Anne Todd, hoping she could replicate it at home. Fortunately, she was also a good cook, preparing the dessert often for Abe and their guests and later taking the recipe to the White House when Lincoln served as president from 1861 to 1965. Lemon meringue pie has been a favorite dessert, served in both the presidential private dining room and formal state dinners for visiting dignitaries. Everyone raved about the refreshing taste of lemon custard cradled in an airy meringue that melts in one’s mouth!
Delicious desserts and culinary history can certainly whet one’s appetite and curiosity. Journalist and research historian Becky Diamond has written a most interesting book on the subject, called Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School. Chapter Six serves up a detailed description of her famous lemon custard topped with clouds of fluffy meringue.
Tips for Making Meringue
It may seem daunting, but a basic meringue is nothing more than a mixture of beaten egg whites and sugar, gradually beating one tablespoon at a time until dissolved, resulting in stiff, glossy peaks. For a smoother and stiffer meringue, you can add cream of tartar to the recipe — a simple ratio: four large egg whites, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1/4 cup sugar.
- Use a large glass, ceramic, stainless steel, or copper bowl. Never use plastic; it can hold traces of oil that can affect volume and consistency.
- Use fresh egg whites. Old eggs tend to collapse when other ingredients are folded in and don’t rise well in the oven.
- Separate the yolks from the whites when the eggs are chilled. Set aside for 10 to 15 minutes to bring to room temperature, and then begin to whip, ensuring a higher volume.
- Don’t use packaged egg whites. The pasteurization process in the product can prevent the forming of a stable meringue.
- Don’t overbeat the egg whites. That causes a hard, lumpy, dry meringue. Start the mixer on medium-low to medium speed. Beat until foamy and increase the speed to medium-high and then to high. If beaten too quickly, the foam structure will not be strong or reach the desired height.
- You can add a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar at the beginning to help stabilize the foam, making it less likely to collapse. If adding acid, don’t use a copper bowl; it will react with the copper and discolor the egg foam.
- Watch the weather for high humidity. Meringue tends to absorb moisture in the air, causing a soft and sticky consistency.
- Spread the meringue to the edges of the pie crust. This helps prevent it from weeping. Bake pie on the lowest oven rack at 350 degrees F for 20 to 25 minutes until the meringue is golden brown.
Originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.