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The power of lemon, Jell-O and a Microplane


Grate heavens, I have had an epiphany, and its name is Microplane. If you cook much, you may be thinking about now, "Boy, is she slow on the uptake."

Yes, I know Microplanes aren't exactly new anymore. But I resisted these graters for years. I'm a reforming gadgetholic, and after all, I had a perfectly serviceable box grater, plus a good Zyliss drum grater for those times when I felt flush and bought real Parmesan, even if it was a little awkward to use.

And increasingly, I simply took strips of citrus zest off with a vegetable peeler and ground them with sugar in my food processor, to give a stronger, better-distributed flavor. But I always felt like a bit of a rebel when I did so, because if I pressed even vaguely too hard on a lemon with the peeler, I'd get pith, the bitter white under the sweet-tart yellow.

Finally, I oh-so-casually mentioned to my sister that I was contemplating getting a Microplane. Smart woman that she is, she took the hint, and there it was under the Christmas tree.

Even then, I didn't jump to use it. It wasn't until several weeks later, when I got a severe hankering for lemon-rosemary bars, that I pulled it from its wrapper.

And with utter ease, feather-light lemon zest drifted down into a puffy cloud. No longer did I hold my grater in a death grip, pressing down hard with the hand that rocked the lemon. Instead, the zest came off in a flash, and I almost couldn't tell, so thin a layer did the grater remove.

Since then, I've been grating like a fool. Man may not be able to live on lemon bars alone, but I could.

But oh, there was more coming. Hard Parmesan in my drum grater? Ciao, baby. Stringy ginger? How about a seductively silky puree instead? And pillows of chocolate, so delicate you just might want to lay your head on them.

Not that Microplanes were invented for this; they started out as great wood rasps in 1990. In 1994, an Ottawa woman ready to bake a cake got annoyed with her grater and picked up a new tool her husband, a hardware store owner, had brought home. Since then, Microplanes in all shapes and sizes have come out; but I like the original, generally available for about $12.

All this fun has brought me back to the joys of lemons. What was I going to do with these mounds of zest? I thought about lemon chicken, lemony green beans, lemon-rosemary or lemon-thyme cookies or cake or shortbread, but mostly I thought about lemon meringue pie.

For years, that has been my father's favorite. My mother, a great cook, liked making the pie for Dad, but she found from-scratch recipes disappointing--a lemon lover herself, they were never tart or lemony enough for her palate. Then she happened across a Jell-O pamphlet that called for doctoring a box of lemon pie filling, and never looked back.

Faced with all my zest, I decided to test that out for myself. As a mild control freak, I prefer making most everything from scratch. But I've always adored Dad's pie, and wondered if anything could top that powerful lemon flavor--and whether if, on a more serious study, it would be too obvious that I was eating Jell-O.

Most recipes call for some variation of a simple cornstarch-thickened filling of sugar, water, egg yolks, and lemon zest and juice. They're good, and aside from the risk of overcooking the eggs, easy. (Generally, the presence of cornstarch protects the eggs from scrambling, but it may happen anyway. Just pour the filling through a strainer to catch any overcooked bits.)

But good isn't great. When we tried Mother's pie side-by-side with a standard recipe, the difference was startling. If you can overlook the nearly neon-yellow of the Jell-O pie, you'll find the flavor worth the ignominy of using the box.

The one change I did make was to its meringue. Mother's original recipe calls for just three egg whites, producing a somewhat lazy cloud atop the lemon. Instead, go for at least four whites, and use a cooked cornstarch mixture to stabilize and tenderize them. And make the meringue before the filling. Don't worry that it might collapse while you wait; it won't, and swirling the meringue onto a truly hot filling helps keep it from weeping (leaking moisture onto the filling).

You might also consider making a Swiss meringue to ensure safety from salmonella. I don't like the texture quite as much for a pie, but it's a reasonable option. To do this, bring a saucepan filled with a few inches of water to a simmer. In a large metal mixing bowl, whisk together the egg whites and 6 tablespoons sugar. Place over saucepan, being sure water doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Whisk constantly until whites are quite warm and the sugar dissolves; if you have a thermometer, this should be between 140 and 160 degrees. Remove from the heat, add the cream of tartar, and beat the whites with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for 7 to 10 minutes, until they form a very thick meringue.

Lemon meringue pie does have one drawback: Although it can hold a day or two, it's best the day it's made.

Cook's notes: I've given fairly detailed instructions here, but the recipe is not at all complicated. Making the crust takes the longest; if it frightens you too much, buy a good-quality all-butter frozen crust (such as from Whole Foods) and bake according to package instructions. The recipe here makes two crusts; if you're going to the trouble of making pie dough, why not have an extra disk to put in the freezer? You can easily cut the crust ingredients in half, but using the larger amounts gives you more wiggle room in adding the water and mixing the butter to the correct consistency. Try adding a teaspoon of lemon zest to the pie crust for even more flavor, tossing it with the flour. Note that when a recipe says to fill a crust with beans or pie weights for pre-baking, it does mean fill--to the rim of the crust. Without that weight, the crust may slip down the sides as it cooks. If you don't have cream of tartar, just leave it out. I like my meringues plain, but you could add a dash of vanilla when the whites form soft peaks. EndBlock

Dad's Favorite Lemon Meringue Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie, serving 8 (plus one extra pie crust)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup very cold water, or more as needed

6 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup water
4 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1 3-ounce package lemon pudding & pie filling (not instant pudding)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large egg yolks
2 1/4 cups cold water, divided
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably at room temperature
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (optional--omit for a perfectly smooth filling)

Make crust: In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar and salt with the paddle attachment for about 30 seconds. Add the butter; toss it briefly with your fingers to coat with flour. Cut butter into flour on low speed until butter pieces are pea-sized. Add 1/4 cup water and mix on low speed just until mixture starts to come together; you may need to add up to 3 more tablespoons water. Dough should hold together but not be sticky. Gather into a ball, divide in half, and use immediately, or wrap each half in plastic, flatten into a disk, and chill until ready to use (to freeze, overwrap in foil).

On a lightly floured surface, roll out 1 disk of pie dough to about an 11-inch circle, lifting and turning the dough to keep it from sticking to the surface. Fold the dough in quarters and transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, preferably glass or pottery. Unfold and gently tuck it into the sides of the pan; fold under the overhang and decoratively crimp the edges or press them with fork tines for a pretty edge. Chill in freezer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oven to 375 degrees. Line the pie dough with foil, letting it drape loosely over the rim. Fill with pie weights, rice, or dried beans to the top. Bake 20 minutes; remove foil and weights. Bake 5 to 10 minutes longer, until golden and crisp. Cool on a wire rack; leave oven on.

Make meringue: In a very small saucepan, whisk together 1 tablespoon sugar, cornstarch and water until the cornstarch dissolves. Whisk constantly over medium heat until the mixture boils and thickens. Remove from heat. In a large bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until foamy. Continue to beat while gradually adding remaining 5 tablespoons sugar. Beat until the whites are satiny and form a soft peak (one that droops slightly) when the beaters are lifted. Beat in cornstarch mixture by spoonfuls until whites hold very stiff peaks. Set aside.

Make filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together pie filling, sugar, egg yolks and 1/4 cup water until smooth. Whisk in remaining 2 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly (be sure to get the whisk into the edges of the pan). Remove from heat and whisk in butter, lemon juice and lemon zest, whisking until butter is melted. Pour into pie crust. Immediately top with dollops of meringue. With an offset metal or rubber spatula, or with a table knife, spread the meringue to the edges of the crust, being sure to seal it to the crust all the way around. From time to time lift the spatula to make small peaks. Bake on the center shelf of the oven for 15 minutes, or until meringue is golden. Let cool and serve at room temperature; keep leftovers refrigerated.

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