Lemon Meringue Heaven

Two lemons, zest and juice, are what you need to set your sour tooth a-tingling. Plus, of course, just the right proportion of egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and flour.

What a lovely bunch of lemon meringue pie recipes readers sent. There were seven, plus or minus, of the classic lemon filling with meringue on top. Then there were some variations which sounded really wonderful, a chiffon-y sort, and one made with sour cream, and “lemon cake pie.” I will hang onto those and give them a try later to share with you here.

Lemon meringue was my dad’s favorite pie, and my mom used to make it with the packaged mix. I remember a little gelatin-like capsule containing the lemon flavoring that dissolved in the pan as you cooked the mix. At the time, I liked the resulting pie well enough, but when I encountered from-scratch lemon meringues, I figured out what the fuss was all about.

I’ll bet my dad would’ve liked to do as Dot Mead’s husband did at age sixty, and ask for lemon meringue as a birthday treat in lieu of cake. Dot, who lives in Southwest Harbor, sent along the Good Housekeeping recipe she always used.

Ruth Thurston, in Machias, wrote to say, “The first time I visited my husband-to-be’s family, his mother made this pie. I asked for the recipe then and it is still my favorite.” That was a good strategy.

Lemon pies with meringue toppings have been around quite a while. Wearing my other hat as food historian, I bumped into them in the late 1800s, and Dick McLaughlin in Machias sent one entitled “Fresh Lemon Pie” from Farmer Country Kitchen Cookbook, first published in 1894. He wrote, “Here’s a recipe that we have used over the years with good success. Enjoy.”

Maureen Calder, from Canaan, sent her favorite recipe that, she said, “…comes from a tattered, well used Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook on page 235. I’ve been using it for 40 years and, although I’ve added many more cookbooks over these years, this one is still my favorite.”

Marjorie Bray uses a lemon meringue recipe from Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook published in 1959.  A version she also sent, named Black Bottom Lemon Pie, calls for melted chocolate spread on the pie crust before adding the filling. Mmmm. Toby says he can’t wait for me to make that one.

Mary Ulrich in Blue Hill found her recipe in Tea Time at the Masters, published in 1977. While most of the recipes called for spoon or cup measurements of lemon juice, Mary’s called for two lemons, so, following my own principle of rounding up or down to the nearest whole fruit (or vegetable), I squeezed two lemons and found out that they came to a third of a cup, which at least three of the recipes called for. Evelyn Kallock, in Camden, sent a clutch of recipes from a 1955 Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. One of those recipes called for “1/3 cup or two lemons.” Bingo, two lemons it is.

Thanks, also, to Penny Kneeland in Burlington, and Deborah Oliver (no relation) in Camden, who sent along other lemon pie variations that I will try anon, after I have recovered from my most recent lemon meringue binge.

Now let’s have a quick conversation on assembling this pie. If you have a gluten allergy in your house, you will have to use all cornstarch in the filling. Five to seven tablespoons should do the trick, and it wouldn’t hurt to stick another egg yolk in there. I advocate two whole lemons plus grated rind of both. Because I really like an intense lemony sourness in the pie filling, I routinely drop the sugar amount at least a little. You’ll need to suit yourself on that.

Ruth’s recipe calls for a quarter teaspoon of lemon rind in the meringue, too, a splendid idea. Otherwise you can flavor it with a half teaspoon or so of vanilla, though several recipes called for no flavoring in the meringue. Don’t forget a hearty pinch of cream of tartar to help the meringue firm up.

The pie sets up nicely if you let it cool thoroughly. The pie in the picture shows a bit of sagging, but that was because I served it for dessert about two hours after I made it. Next day, I could cut it with no oozing going on. But who would want to wait that long?

Lemon Meringue Pie


1 ½ cups sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons flour
dash salt
1 ½ cups hot water
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter
juice of 2 lemons
grated lemon peel of 2 lemons
9 inch baked pie shell

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, mix sugar, cornstarch, flour and salt. Gradually add the hot water, stirring constantly. Cook and stir over high heat until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cook and stir two minutes longer. Remove from heat.

Slightly beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir a small amount of the hot water and cornstarch mixture into egg yolks, then add that to the rest of the hot mixture. Bring to a boil again and cook two more minutes, stirring constantly. Add butter and lemon peel. Slowly add lemon juice, mixing well. Pour into pie shell. Make the meringue.

Meringue recipe
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 Tablespoons sugar

Beat egg whites with vanilla and cream of tartar, until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, beating until stiff and glossy peaks form and all sugar is dissolved. Spread meringue over filling; seal to edge. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Cool before cutting.

Makes 1 nine-inch pie

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.