The Kitchen Chemist: Deciphering Grandmother's Lemon Meringue Recipe

August 3, 2014

Grandmother (left) and her first cousin, Jody, at Grand's 85th birthday celebration.

     Anyone who has ever eaten my Grandmother's cooking will tell you that she is arguably one of the best cooks in the South. I will put her head to head with Paula Deen any day.  She's pretty much a super hero and I'm not sure if she has alien DNA or what is in her body, but she never ages.  She runs on a treadmill every morning for about an hour, climbs ladders to change her own light bulbs, and is offended when I tell her not to do something because of her age.  She has no limitations and never has.  Sort of the Ketut Liyer of Damascus, she is always smiling, always has a positive attitude regardless of the situation, and just flat out tells it like it is. You NEVER have to wonder where you stand with her because when she has had enough, she will just hang up on you- period, the end.

     Replete with wisdom and one liners, my morning phone calls to her every day are usually the highlight of my day.  She has lived her life marching to her own drum, and has never cared much about what people think about her or how she lives her life.  With a name as unique as her approach to living, Lenis has made things work for her, regardless of her situation. To have been born shortly prior to the crash of 1929, she is a very unconventional woman who has been breaking glass ceilings and boundaries that most women of her generation dared not dream touch.  From having a pet pig that could swim, to painting the letters on the county buses as as summer job when she was sixteen, she has always done things her own way.

     Of course, this would apply to recipes- which she never follows.  All recipes are in her head.  Every year, we grab a bottle of wine, have a few glasses and then call Grandmother to get her cornbread dressing recipe.  And each year, I write it down and laugh that it is just a "little bit" different than it was the year before, and she always says "To be a good cook, you have to experiment and taste things as you go.  I'm perfecting things constantly."

    I woke up this morning thinking of Lemon Ice Box pie and looked in my trusty recipe book to find her recipe.  I looked at what I written down and then had to call for clarification.  Here is what it read..and then I will tell you what she said.

3-4 yokes
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 c Lemon Juice (4 lemons) rind
3 beaten egg whites 
1/2 cream of tartar
1/3 c   or 2T/ egg - sugar
1/2 t vanilla
Graham cracker crust, just a dab of sugar and enough butter.

This is what her recipes look like.  I had no idea what the hell this meant.  So, I dialed up the kitchen chemist and it went something like this.

"Who told you to put 1/2 t of cream of tartar?  Good Lord!  That is too much.  You don't need more than a 1/4t. Be careful with that vanilla.  And I don't make that crust homemade anymore when there are good ones at the store, but you do what you want.  I have no idea how much butter it takes to make the crust if you are going to make one homemade. Can't you figure it out while you are putting it together?  You should know by now when there is enough butter to make a crust; you cook just like I do. And you'd better use the Eagle Brand milk because it makes a difference.  Don't get some sorry store brand or your pie just won't turn out.  Don't grate all four of those lemons or your mouth will be puckered up.  Just use enough zest to give it some flavor.  How much is that?  Well, I don't know- just zest one of those lemons.  Now days, they say to cook the custard for the pie, but none of us ever died from salmonella and this makes a wonderful pie- the one that you all love so much and fight over.  Don't put the cream of tartar in until the end when you finally get peaks.  Make sure you use those good Honey graham crackers now, don't use some other brand."

So here we go- if you want the recipe, this is it:


Preheat oven to 350.

Crust:  Get some graham grackers - try a sleeve of them- cause I can't remember how many it takes..but start with this: 
See, I am more like her than I think sometimes.
Mix in about 1/4 c of sugar and then melt a stick of butter.
Crush the graham crackers in a ziplock bag, add in the sugar and pour the melted butter in with the crushed crackers.  It should form a ball and you should be able to spread it out in the pie plate to make a crust.  I like mine thick.

Lemon Pie Filling:
Separate 3 egg yolks and put the whites over to the side for the meringue later
Mix in 1 can (14oz) of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
Juice abour four lemons- or however many it takes to come up with 1/2 c of fresh lemon juice.
Prior to the juicing, make sure that you zest/ grate the rind from one of the lemons (gives it a little extra punch)
Mix with a wire whisk until it's all blended and it's all mixed well and looks creamy and consistent.
Pour filling into the crust.

Take your 3 egg whites and add in 6 T of sugar and
1/2 t vanilla extract (not flavoring)
Beat on medium until the whites begin to stiffen, then add in 1/4 t cream of tartar
When you finally get firm peaks that stand up on their own pour the meringue on top of the lemon filling and use a spoon to make pretty peaks all over the pie.  You want one pretty curly peak in the center because that always makes me smile.

Bake 10-15 minutes at 350 until the meringue starts to brown.  Watch it carefully and do not let it burn.

I have really been struggling to eat clean and vegan and without sugar, but I think a lemon pie is calling my name.  I am going to set a goal for myself this week and if I meet it, I might make a pie.  Happy baking if you decide to use the recipe. If you do make this lemon pie and love it, please leave a comment for my Grand.  She loves it when I share her recipes and people enjoy them.

Love y'all,

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