Monday, January 16, 2012

Lemon Meringue Pie

Today is my dad's birthday, so I made him a lemon meringue pie to help celebrate his sixty-two years on earth. I've been thinking about what story to tell about my dad for days, hoping I could find the perfect one to highlight all his strengths and lovingly tease him about his quirks. Should I brag about his talents in furniture making by telling you about the time he turned a neighbor's shattered cherry tree into the most beautiful dining room table I've ever seen? Or should I tell you about the time he got so tickled in the parking lot of Cha Da Thai when telling a joke about my mom's native land of New Jersey, that he couldn't even get out the punch line because he was in tears? Should I tell you about the time he bought a 36-pack of Sharpie markers so that he'd always have one around since his family members liked to take but not return them to their designated drawer? Or when he chained the scissors in the kitchen drawer so as counteract the same problem. Perhaps I should just talk about our runs through "downtown" Lewisville and how he would act like it wasn't a competition and then take off in a dead sprint to the car so that he'd win. Yes, those would all be great stories, but I've decided on this simple story:

When I was a sophomore in college, I was home visiting my parents one weekend. I can't be sure what specifically brought me home, so I assume there was no real occasion. I suspect it was a quick visit over spring break or at the beginning of the summer because I remember it being a beautiful warm day. Not too hot. Not too humid. As was the well-established routine, I would pack up all my belongings in the car, head back upstairs, check to make sure that I had not forgotten anything [invariably, I had], and yelled to my parents that I was leaving. Both mom and dad would then walk me down the basement stairs, give me hugs in the driveway, and wave goodbye to me as I began to back out of the driveway.

That day's routine was really no different than the others before it. Except that when I loaded the last of my belongings into the backseat, I noticed a bag of my favorite jelly beans -- buttered popcorn -- in the driver's seat of my car. The beginnings of a smile twitched their way to the corners of my mouth. It wasn't my birthday; I hadn't done anything for which I deserved a reward. It was just a random act of kindness. I remember asking both my parents about it. Mom looked at Dad; Dad sheepishly smiled, making limited eye contact, like he was both proud of himself and a little embarrassed. It was then that I really understood what a sweet guy my dad is.

I see Dad's kindness frequently now: when he brings my favorite Chardonnay to dinner; when he stocks Jason's favorite beer in the basement fridge; when he brings my mom a cappuccino in bed on Saturday mornings. So on the sixty-second anniversary of his birthday, I want to highlight and celebrate one of the qualities I love most about him - his genuine thoughtfulness.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

Lemon Meringue Pie
[adapted from The Joy of Cooking]

Preheat oven 325ยบ

Prepare one pie crust. Bake it before filling with custard and meringue otherwise you risk the crust not fully cooking. Pierce the dough with a fork. So that the bottom of the crust doesn't bubble, you will need to weigh it down. Fit a piece of aluminum foil over the bottom and sides of the dough. Pour beans or rice on top of the foil. Bake 20-25 minutes.

Lemon Custard
In a medium saucepan combine:
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
dash of salt
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cup strained fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
4 large egg yolks
[keep whites - you'll use them for the meringue]
Whisk the ingredients together.

Once well blended, turn on medium heat and add:
3 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
Constantly whisk until the mixture gets very thick. This will take 3-5 minutes depending upon your stove. Remove from heat and pour into the baked pie shell. Cover the custard with plastic wrap. Immediately prepare the meringue.

In metal electric mixing bowl add:
4 large egg whites
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form.
[Soft peaks are when the whisk is lifted, the egg whites stand-up on their own but the point is like the rounded peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. In contrast, stiff peaks are like the pointed peaks of the Rockies Mountains.]

Gradually beat in:
1/2 cup sugar
Beat on high speed until very glossy and stiff peaks form. Turn off mixer.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, thoroughly whisk together:
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup water

Continuously whisk until a translucent paste forms. Remove paste from heat. Turn on electric mixer to the lowest speed and add the paste to the egg whites one spoonful at a time. Once all of the paste is incorporated, increase speed and beat for ten seconds.

Remove the plastic wrap from top of the custard and pour meringue over it. Make sure to spread the meringue all the way to the edges of the crust.
Egg whites here have formed a stiff peak

Bake for 20 minutes. Let cool completely before refrigerating. Serve cold.

Eat up!

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