Feature
The Alchemy of Egg Whites
Sky-high pies embody the delights of meringue

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    A slice of Rebecca Rather’s lemon meringue pie from Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    Making meringue starts with separating egg whites from yolks.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg, with a lemon meringue pie.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    A slice of coconut meringue pie from Koffee Kup Family Restaurant in Hico.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    Adela Rangel has been the pie chef at Koffee Kup for 24 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    Server Ellie Fonseca at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    Server Emma Roach at Koffee Kup shows off a towering meringue.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
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    Maura Dominguez has been mounding meringue at Blue Bonnet for 33 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden

It was mostly about the reward of pie, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For several years I joined my daughter, Flannery, and her Girl Scout troop on their annual trip to Camp Champions in Marble Falls. The outing, which usually landed in early May, was much anticipated by the girls, even though each year seemed to be cursed by dramatic Texas weather. There were frigid nights in drafty cabins and torrential thunderstorms, and one terrifying year, a tornado chased us out of town.

Mother Nature, plus a hysteria fueled by s’mores and the energy of several hundred girls, made our departure each Sunday morning feel like a small victory, akin to making it through an episode of Survivor.

  • A slice of Rebecca Rather’s lemon meringue pie from Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Making meringue starts with separating egg whites from yolks.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg, with a lemon meringue pie.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • A slice of coconut meringue pie from Koffee Kup Family Restaurant in Hico.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Adela Rangel has been the pie chef at Koffee Kup for 24 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Ellie Fonseca at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Emma Roach at Koffee Kup shows off a towering meringue.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Maura Dominguez has been mounding meringue at Blue Bonnet for 33 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden

The treat at the end of those epic weekends was breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe, the beloved institution known for its pies and recognizable by its awesome neon signage. One year we gave Flannery’s bestie, Clara, a ride to the restaurant. As we waited in line for a table, we all became mesmerized by the cooler displaying whopping wedges of fruit pies, cream pies and custard-based show stealers crowned with implausibly high clouds of meringue.

Clara, eyes wide and mother conveniently en route, asked if she might order pie for breakfast. Naturally, I acquiesced. When the massive wedge of lemon meringue pie was placed in front of her, her reaction—a mixture of disbelief, wonder and pure joy—made us all burst out laughing. Years later we all vividly remember Clara’s meringue pie moment, which speaks to another attribute of pies: They can create cherished memories.

  • A slice of Rebecca Rather’s lemon meringue pie from Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Making meringue starts with separating egg whites from yolks.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg, with a lemon meringue pie.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • A slice of coconut meringue pie from Koffee Kup Family Restaurant in Hico.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Adela Rangel has been the pie chef at Koffee Kup for 24 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Ellie Fonseca at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Emma Roach at Koffee Kup shows off a towering meringue.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Maura Dominguez has been mounding meringue at Blue Bonnet for 33 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden

For many people, myself included, certain pies are steeped in memories or connected to memorable occasions. Coconut cream pie? The time I was lucky enough to interview Lyle Lovett over a couple slices in Old Town Spring. Late June means Stonewall peaches and galettes (rustic French tarts) several nights a week. Billowy meringue pies always make me think of my friend Rebecca Rather (more on her later).

“Pie, in general, makes people happy,” concurs Dave Plante, owner of Blue Bonnet Cafe. “If you come through our line between the hours of 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, chances are you’re gonna see our huge mixers full of a fluffy white mixture bubbling up and out of the side,” Plante says. “It’s mesmerizing to watch.”

  • A slice of Rebecca Rather’s lemon meringue pie from Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Making meringue starts with separating egg whites from yolks.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg, with a lemon meringue pie.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • A slice of coconut meringue pie from Koffee Kup Family Restaurant in Hico.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Adela Rangel has been the pie chef at Koffee Kup for 24 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Ellie Fonseca at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Emma Roach at Koffee Kup shows off a towering meringue.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Maura Dominguez has been mounding meringue at Blue Bonnet for 33 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden

The fascination with sky-high meringue is evident in the surprise of customers at Hico’s Koffee Kup Family Restaurant, where the motto is “Pie fixes everything.”

“When they see the meringue in the pie case, their jaw drops open,” says manager and co-owner Irene Leach, whose first job at the Koffee Kup in 1987 was baking pies. Now, Adela Rangel starts baking five flavors, plus two sugar-free options, at 6:30 each morning, as she has for 24 years.

  • A slice of Rebecca Rather’s lemon meringue pie from Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Making meringue starts with separating egg whites from yolks.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg, with a lemon meringue pie.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • A slice of coconut meringue pie from Koffee Kup Family Restaurant in Hico.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Adela Rangel has been the pie chef at Koffee Kup for 24 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Ellie Fonseca at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Emma Roach at Koffee Kup shows off a towering meringue.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Maura Dominguez has been mounding meringue at Blue Bonnet for 33 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden

Blue Bonnet’s Plante tells me that customers often inquire how they pile the meringue so high—a trick he attributes to seasoned bakers who have been whipping egg whites and sugar for years.

So what is meringue, actually? In its simplest form, it’s a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites and granulated sugar. To achieve a perfectly smooth texture, the sugar is typically added slowly—a tablespoon at a time.

Web Extra: More About Meringue

Tips for Perfect Meringue

 

You can pile meringue directly onto a pie or spoon it into a pastry bag and pipe a pretty design.

 

Spread the meringue so that it covers the edge of the pie crust, to prevent it from shrinking while it bakes.

 

Whether you use a kitchen torch, broiler or oven, cook just until it’s browning here and there and smells like toasted marshmallows.

 

 

 

 

Varieties of Meringue

 

Soft meringue: The supple, swirlable topping for pies, custards and baked Alaska. It’s baked (or torched) until the peaks are nicely browned.

 

Hard meringue: Soft meringue that’s piped onto a baking sheet and baked at a low temperature until crisp on the outside and chewy inside or completely dry. The center of hard meringues can be filled with fruit, ice cream, etc.

 

Italian meringue: Made by gradually pouring hot sugar syrup over stiffly beaten egg whites, then beating constantly until the mixture is smooth and satiny. The glossy mixture can be used to create either hard or soft meringues.

For further insight I called a noted meringue whisperer—Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg and the creative mind behind her wildly popular “big-hair meringue arts” (featuring spiky meringue tops reminiscent of retro hairstyles). “Once I went to a Weight Watchers meeting, and some of the women there yelled at me and said I was responsible for their extra pounds,” she recalls with a laugh. “You know I love meringue but only when it’s done right; it needs to be stiff and strong and hold up. I don’t like it when it’s slobbery, watery and nasty.”

Rather perfected her meringue game years ago when she was the pastry chef at Tony’s in Houston. “I used to decorate huge ice cream bombs with meringue, and I had to do it in the freezer,” she recalls. For all her desserts, including the banana pudding served at Emma + Ollie, she still relies on the meringue recipe in her first book, The Pastry Queen.

  • A slice of Rebecca Rather’s lemon meringue pie from Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Making meringue starts with separating egg whites from yolks.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg, with a lemon meringue pie.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • A slice of coconut meringue pie from Koffee Kup Family Restaurant in Hico.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Adela Rangel has been the pie chef at Koffee Kup for 24 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Ellie Fonseca at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Server Emma Roach at Koffee Kup shows off a towering meringue.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden
  • Maura Dominguez has been mounding meringue at Blue Bonnet for 33 years.
    IMAGE: Wyatt McSpadden

For Rather’s method, the sugar is whisked with egg whites over a pan of simmering water until it dissolves and then whipped with an electric mixer until it’s stiff and shiny. The key, she tells me, is to beat the whites slowly in the beginning, until they’re light and foamy, and then beat them at high speed until stiff peaks form.

Rebecca Rather’s Meringue

Rather uses a kitchen torch to brown her meringue-topped pies and tarts, but the process can also be done quickly under a broiler.

 

10 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
3 cups sugar

 

1. Place a large, perfectly clean metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Pour in the egg whites and sugar. (If there is a trace of fat in the bowl, the eggs won’t reach their proper volume.)

 

2. Heat the egg whites and sugar while whisking constantly until the sugar melts and there are no visible grains in the meringue. Take a little meringue mixture and rub it between your fingers to make sure all the sugar grains have melted.

 

3. Remove the bowl from the pot and whip it with a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment on low speed for 5 minutes; increase the speed to high and beat 5 minutes longer, until the meringue is stiff and shiny.

 

Makes meringue for 1 pie.

 

Reprinted with permission from The Pastry Queen (Ten Speed Press, 2004).

I knew Cathy Barrow, author of Pie Squared (a cookbook devoted to rectangular “slab pies”), would have opinions on the subject. “I think we all need more meringue in our life,” she tells me. “It tastes so much like campfire marshmallows and makes the kitchen smell great as it toasts under the broiler. If you have a blowtorch, bronzing meringue is a badass move as a party trick.”

Preparing meringue is also a smart way to make the most of leftover ingredients. “If you make ice cream or flan or many cakes or enriched doughs, you’ll end up with egg whites, and they keep a long time,” Barrow says. She keeps hers in a covered jar in the fridge. “Sometimes I make Pavlovas and then turn those into fruit fools,” she adds. (Named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the dessert consists of a crisp meringue base topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.) “But whenever I can,” Barrow continues, “I cover the surface or pipe or plop a pretty meringue edge on a pie. Don’t limit this action to lemon or lime pies. A meringue topping on a bumbleberry pie is amazing.”

Pie recipes handed down from one generation to the next are particularly transporting. “My grandma’s chocolate meringue pie is my favorite thing to eat in the entire world,” says Lisa Fain, author of The Homesick Texan cookbooks and food blog. “Whether it makes an appearance after a good day or a bad one, it never fails to lift my spirits. It’s always a declaration of love.”

Web Extra: Grandma’s Chocolate Meringue Pie

From Lisa Fain, The Homesick Texan Cookbook

 

1 unbaked pie crust in a 9-inch pie pan

 

Custard
3/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cocoa or 1 1/2 squares baking chocolate
2 egg yolks, beaten slightly
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon butter

 

Meringue
2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Poke holes in the pie crust with a fork and bake about 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Some prefer to weigh it down with pie weights or beans to prevent bubbling.

 

2. Custard: Meanwhile, whisk together sugar, flour, salt, cocoa, egg yolks and milk. Cook in a pot on medium heat while occasionally stirring until the mixture bubbles and thickens, 7–10 minutes. If it starts to become lumpy, beat out the lumps. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter.

 

3. Meringue: Using a stand mixer, beat egg whites and salt until smooth, light and fluffy, 5–10 minutes. They should have soft peaks like whipped cream. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, a strong arm with a whisk or an eggbeater can accomplish this task, too. Please note that by hand, it will take much longer than 10 minutes.)

 

4. Whisk the sugar into the meringue.

 

5. Pour custard into the baked pie shell and top with the beaten egg whites. Bake it until the peaks on the meringue are lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

 

Serves 8.

 

Reprinted with permission from The Homesick Texan Cookbook (Hachette Books, 2011).

This particular pie, Fain adds, is more than the sum of its parts. “It’s a simple recipe, and her meringues are more of an accent rather than a statement since they’re never all that tall. The combination of fluffy topping, rich custard and salty crust may appear humble, but it’s the finest dessert that I know.”


Paula Disbrowe never met a rhubarb pie she didn’t like. She is the author of Thank You for Smoking and the chief flavor officer for Fire & Smoke Society. She lives in Austin.

TAGS: Food, Recipes, Taste of Texas


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