A meringue pie is a lot like a hug from grandma. It's sweet and warm and makes you feel good.
Even if a meringue pie isn't your favorite dessert, its appearance can make your mouth water.
But not all pie makers are willing to attempt the temperamental meringue.
"Making meringue is tricky," said Elizabeth Maggi. Nicknamed "The Pie Lady," Maggi has a following of pie fans from her years at Missy's Pies and The Phat Pie shop.
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Maggi estimates that in her years of pie making, she has made "over a million" meringue pies and has "gone through" 16 KitchenAid mixers.
Now chef at The TBar at Woodland and Euclid avenues, where burgers and wings rule, Maggi serves a number of meringue pies.
Depending on whom you ask, the tried-and-true meringue-making method varies. Your mother and grandmother might swear by their techniques. Even the experts at the American Egg Board don't agree with the skilled professionals at Cook's Illustrated.
"You hear all kinds of tricks about meringue. Everybody's got a spin on it," Maggi said. "Eggs have to be room temperature. Eggs need to be cold. They can't be old. They can't be new. And the humidity. I can't tell you that any of those are true."
For today's cooking lesson, we're going with Maggi's way. She is sharing her recipe for meringue for the first time.
To begin with: "I pull out flats of eggs, get out my KitchenAid mixer and some sugar." She adds cream of tartar and cornstarch as stabilizers.
The one caution Maggi insists that cooks follow is to make sure there are no egg yolks in the bowl with the whites.
"It will not come out as fluffy. Of all the things I've seen, that is the one thing that will cause it to be flat."
Maggi puts all of the ingredients into the mixer bowl at one time.
"Some say gradually add the sugar, but when I've got that many pies going, I don't have time," she said.
When all ingredients are in the bowl, she turns the mixer on high.
"Don't overbeat it so that it gets so stiff you can't work with it," she said. Even in conversation, and with her back to the mixer, Maggi knows when the mixture is at the right consistency. Lifting the beater, she makes sure the whipped egg whites have a nice string to their texture.
Maggi prefers to spread the meringue over filling that's room temperature rather than hot.
"Always make sure the meringue sticks to the crust. Seal it. If not, the meringue can slide right off when you take it from the oven."
Using a large spoon, Maggi scoops and swirls the meringue so there are five peaks, which make identifiable dividers for slicing. The pie is then baked in a preheated 350-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until the peaks are brown.
Each pie she makes might look similar, but there's never a perfect one.
"There is no perfect meringue," she said. "People think it has to be perfect, and it can't be."
A common misconception about meringue is that it can't be made on a rainy day. Because of its high sugar content, meringue can absorb moisture from the air and become limp and sticky.
That really doesn't bother Maggi, or Debby Fischer, another well-known Central Kentucky baker. Fischer bakes her famous pies at Kurtz Restaurant in Bardstown.
"On rainy days, I have not noticed any special problems with meringue, but in the very high-humidity days, I notice more weeping of the meringue," she said. "I tend to beat it longer just to insure less moisture under the fluff. Some days it works; some days it does not."
Customers at Kurtz expect meringue pies, no matter what the weather. During the summer, when The Stephen Foster Story is in production at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Fischer makes 10 to 20 meringue pies a day. She also makes mini meringue pies so guests can have more than one flavor. Coconut, chocolate and lemon are the favorites.
Cook's Illustrated acknowledges three types of meringue, known colloquially as French, Swiss and Italian. It all comes down to soft versus hard.
â– French meringue — sometimes referred to as "ordinary" — is the most basic of the trio and the least stable until baked. Egg whites are beaten until they coagulate and form soft peaks, at which point sugar is slowly incorporated until the mixture has attained full volume; is soft, airy and light, and it stands at attention when the whip is lifted. French meringue is customarily spooned or piped into various forms, including dessert shells and cake layers, then baked, later to be topped with fruit, mousse or whipped cream. It's also often folded into batters (for lady fingers, sponge cakes, soufflés and the like) and baked.
â– Swiss meringue is prepared by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a pan that sits above boiling water without touching it. When the mixture reaches 120 to 130 degrees, the sugar is completely dissolved, and the mixture is pulled off the heat and beaten vigorously to increase and attain full volume and then at a lower speed until cool and very stiff. Swiss meringue is smoother, silkier and somewhat denser than French meringue, and it's often used as a base for buttercream frostings.
â– Italian meringue is made by drizzling 240- degree sugar syrup into whites that have been whipped to hold firm peaks. Whipping continues until the meringue is fully voluminous, satiny, stiff and cool. Italian meringue is often used to frost cakes (alone or as a base for buttercream frostings), to top filled pies, or to lighten ice creams, sorbets and mousses.