When life gives you lemons, make lemon meringue pie

  • Lemon meringue pie. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2020 12:59:49 PM

A mixture of egg whites and sugar dances lightly on the tongue. The bright, vibrant flavor of lemon curd offers a luxurious sourness that’s a reminder of why humans cultivate the yellow fruit (a hybrid between a bitter orange and citron). And the buttery crust provides a welcomed heft to the delicate textures of the bite.

It’s lemon meringue pie, and it’s a perfect way to cap off a delicious meal or simply pass some time while you stay hunkered down waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Italian grandmother, Anna, was the cook in the family. Virtually every meal in her East Boston home was your classic stereotype of what a second-generation American would make to feed her “famiglia” (family in Italian). Sicilian pizza (though she wasn’t Sicilian), manicotti and Italian bread often graced her table, and her chicken broth was always something I couldn’t get enough of. My brother and I would stir into our bowls an almost obscene amount of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and use our spoons to make sure some the broth’s specks of spaghetti would get caught in a drag of gooey goodness. But while my grandmother was the cook extraordinaire, my favorite pies were often crafted by my grandfather, after whom I am named.

My papa was known for broken glass pie (whipped cream pie with chunks of Jell-O of different colors in it to resemble stained glass) and lemon meringue pie. My wife, Jennifer Poli, recently decided to use up some ingredients we had from before the state went into lockdown. Jen, a talented former cake decorator at the Big Y World Class Market in Greenfield, tweaked the common recipe to produce a higher meringue and to get better-quality peaks, the spikes synonymous with meringue pies.

First, she used a wooden juicer to squeeze out the lemon juice and a grater to zest the rinds. Then, she beat six egg whites in a dry glass bowl to make the meringue. Be careful not to get any egg yolk into the whites (not even the tiniest drop) because this will prohibit the meringue from forming those beautiful peaks. Jen saves the additional yolks in a container for future use — these extra three yolks were used to make cinnamon French toast with a homemade caramel sauce.

Once the Pillsbury pie crust was par baked, Jen started on the lemon curd. She generated a small mountain of zest that was added to a saucepan with other ingredients, including fresh lemon juice. The filling gets removed from heat and poured into the par baked pastry shell. The egg whites are whipped until foamy — the more egg whites you use, the more the meringue on your slice of pie will resemble the colossal foreheads of the four presidents immortalized on Mount Rushmore.


It is generally accepted that Swiss baker Alexander Frehse came up with one of the earliest recipes of the pie. There is also evidence to suggest botanist Emile Campbell-Browne developed a similar recipe in England in 1875. Still others say the lemon pie of Elizabeth Goodfellow, who founded one of the first cooking schools in the United States, was the precursor of the modern-day lemon meringue pie. Whenever it was invented, the treat soon grew in popularity, and Aug. 15 is now unofficially National Lemon Meringue Pie Day.

When Jen and I started dating on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus 13½ years ago, she was always away Sunday mornings to work in the bakery of Big Y’s Amherst location. I didn’t mind it, though — she came back smelling of cake frosting. I grew quite fond of that aroma. After we graduated we lived with her mother for a year while Jen worked toward her master’s degree, and she wore the same scent home from the Greenfield store.

We’re now parents to a gorgeous 1-year-old girl, and time for baking can be a scarce commodity. But Jen seizes every opportunity she has to stay sharp in the kitchen and be creative. She had already mastered banana bread, cakes and various types of fruit pies when she tried her hand at a “bear in a bubble bath.” This is a fun family recipe that combines brownies, Rolo candies, Teddy Grahams and little marshmallows to make adorable treats that look like bears are waiting on a glass of wine so they can let the day’s stresses melt away in a bubble bath.

I’m often told marriage agrees with me. While I’d like to take this as a full-fledged compliment, it probably just means I’m not as skinny as I used to be. But if you’re married to a great home cook/baker, they’re going to have to love you at any size.

Jen made this decadent lemon meringue pie using mostly ingredients we had in our house. It’s amazing how a store-bought pie crust, a couple of pieces of fruit and some items from inside a baking cabinet can bring you on a trip down memory lane. My grandparents are gone now and they never knew the COVID-19 pandemic, but if they were here today I think they would agree with me — when life gives you lemons, make lemon meringue pie.

Jennifer’s Lemon Meringue Pie

1 cup white sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 ½ cups water

2 lemons, juiced and zested

2 tablespoons butter

3 egg yolks, beaten

1 (9 inch) pie crust, baked

6 egg whites 

8 tablespoons white sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the lemon filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together 1 cup sugar, flour, cornstarch, and salt. Stir in water, lemon juice and lemon zest. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until mixture comes to a boil. Stir in butter. Place egg yolks in a small bowl and gradually whisk in ½ cup of hot sugar mixture. Whisk egg yolk mixture back into remaining sugar mixture. Bring to a boil and continue to cook while stirring constantly until thick. Remove from heat. Pour filling into baked pastry shell.

To make the meringue: In a large glass or metal bowl, whip egg whites until foamy. Add sugar gradually, and continue to whip until stiff peaks form. Spread meringue over pie, sealing the edges at the crust.

Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until meringue is toasted.

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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