Pies at their peak; We've whipped together some tips on making marvelous meringues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Meringues - beautiful, light, billowy meringue pies - can be lemon, lime, chocolate, banana, rhubarb or graham cracker cream underneath, but there must be meringue on top.

Many cooks are intimidated by these fluffy beauties and take the easy way out by covering their pies with whipped cream. But let's take a closer look at meringues and try to take some of the mystery out of making them. Actually, they're fast and easy to prepare if you follow a few simple tips.

There are two types of meringues in these recipes. Soft meringue is made from egg whites beaten with cream of tartar and then with sugar until stiff peaks form. Italian meringues are made by beating a hot sugar syrup into the egg whites.

The most important thing about making either is ensuring that your bowl and beaters are clean and free of grease. Any fat or grease causes a loss of volume. The size of the bowl is also important; deep, medium-size bowls work the best.

Allow egg whites to come to room temperature before beating; this gives the greatest volume. When separating eggs, be careful not to break the yolk; the fat in the yolk can affect the beaten whites' volume. Crack the eggs over a second bowl so that, if a yolk is broken, the bowl of whites will not be affected.

When making the soft meringue, add the cream of tartar at the beginning of the beating to stabilize the egg whites so they won't deflate so easily. Add the sugar only after the egg whites have reached soft peaks. You can tell by stopping the mixer and lifting the beaters up - the whites should form peaks that fall over softly.

When you add the sugar, it is very important to do so gradually to get a stiff meringue. It is also essential to beat the meringue until it turns glossy. When the beaters are lifted, the egg whites should form stiff, pointed peaks that do not fall over.

Test the egg whites with your fingers at this point. They should not feel gritty. If they do, beat a little longer to dissolve the sugar. Undissolved sugar in meringues forms "beads" of syrup on baked meringues.

Over-beaten egg whites will look too thick and will begin to lose their gloss and look dry.

Italian meringues are made in much the same way, except that the sugar is added in the form of a hot syrup, which cooks the egg whites. It is important to cook the syrup to 238 degrees, but no higher. It is also crucial to add the syrup to the softly beaten egg whites in a fine stream. Remember to slow down your beater when adding the hot syrup so you don't get burned by flying syrup.

Continue beating until the meringue is stiff and cool; then it's ready to be piped onto the tart (unlike soft meringue, which is spooned). An Italian meringue hardens on its own, without further cooking, so use it right away.

When decorating a pie, spoon the meringue into the center of the pie and then push it to the very edge of the filling, so it touches the crust, sealing in the filling. When making the swirls in the meringue, keep the peaks low; if they stand up too high, they will burn during the baking.

Also, don't over-bake the meringue. It should just turn a golden brown. Bake it too long, and the meringue begins to "weep," oozing drops of sugar syrup. This also can be caused by over-beating the egg whites. Cool meringues away from drafts to avoid shrinkage.

Remember that meringue pies are best eaten shortly after baking. Try to avoid making them during humid weather, if you can.

Master Pie Shell

Makes one (9-inch) single-crust pie shell

1 cup flour, plus more for rolling

teaspoon salt

1/3 cup shortening or lard

2 to 3 tablespoons water

Active work time: 10 minutes; total preparation time: 20 minutes

Stir together flour and salt in large glass bowl. Cut shortening into flour until evenly distributed and particles are size of small peas. Sprinkle with water and gently stir with fork until water is blended into pastry and dough begins to form a ball; use your hands to shape. Roll dough out on lightly floured board to 11-inch diameter and lift into 9-inch pie plate, gently pressing dough into bottom and against sides of plate. Flute edges and trim. Prick all over with fork. Bake at 475 degrees until lightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Basic Meringue

Makes meringue for one (9-inch) pie

4 egg whites

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup sugar

Active work and total preparation time: 15 minutes

Combine egg whites and cream of tartar in mixing bowl. Beat until foamy, about 30 seconds.

Continue beating on medium-high speed until egg whites form soft peaks, about 30 seconds.

Gradually beat in sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until stiff peaks form and meringue has a glossy look and sugar is dissolved, 3 to 4 minutes.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

Serves 8

Master Pie Shell, unbaked

1 egg white, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

4 egg yolks

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces, about 4 1/2 cups

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Basic Meringue

Active work time: 35 minutes; total preparation time: 1 hour plus 1 to 2 hours cooling

Brush edges of Master Pie Shell with egg white.

Combine sugar and cornstarch. Beat yolks with wire whisk until light and fluffy. Stir into cornstarch mixture. Mixture will look somewhat crumbly, almost streusel-like. Toss with rhubarb and spoon evenly into crust. Sprinkle with nutmeg.

Bake at 350 degrees until center is set, 50 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove pie from oven and top with meringue, spreading evenly over filling to edges and using back of spoon to swirl. Bake at 400 degrees until meringue is golden brown, an additional 8 to 10 minutes. Let stand 1 to 2 hours before cutting.

Each serving: 392 calories; 200 milligrams sodium; 144 milligrams cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 68 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.64 gram fiber

Spring Lime Meringue Pie

Serves 8

7 tablespoons cornstarch

Spring Lime Meringue Pie

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups boiling water

3 egg yolks, beaten

1/4 cup lime juice

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon grated lime zest

Master Pie Shell, baked

Basic Meringue

Active work time: 45 minutes; total preparation time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus about 1 hour cooling

Combine cornstarch, sugar and salt in saucepan. Stir in boiling water until blended. Bring to boil, stirring until mixture is clear, about 2 minutes. Place cornstarch mixture in top of double boiler set over, but not touching, simmering water. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add small amount hot mixture to beaten egg yolks, then return all yolk mixture to pan, stirring until blended. Cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in lime juice, butter and zest.

Pour filling into Master Pie Shell. Spread meringue over filling, being careful to seal to edges of pie. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.

Each serving: 406 calories; 366 milligrams sodium; 110 milligrams cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 68 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.05 gram fiber

Banana Cream Pie

Serves 8

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon flour

3 cups milk

3 egg yolks, slightly beaten

1 tablespoon butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Master Pie Shell, baked

2 bananas, sliced

Basic Meringue (see note)

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

Active work time: 1 hour; total preparation time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Combine sugar, salt, cornstarch and flour in medium saucepan. Stir in milk until blended. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cream begins to simmer and thicken. Boil 1 minute. Add a little hot mixture to yolks and return all yolk mixture to pan. Heat and stir until mixture thickens, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla extract. Cover custard with plastic wrap and cool slightly.

Spoon half of custard into Master Pie Shell. Top with banana slices. Spoon remaining custard over top of bananas, spreading evenly over top.

Spoon and swirl meringue over top of pie. Sprinkle with almonds. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes.

Note: To make one of those glorious mile-high cream pies, multiply the Basic Meringue recipe by 1 1/2 .

Each serving: 368 calories; 323 milligrams sodium; 113 milligrams cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.19 gram fiber

Variation: You can make delicious Graham-Cracker Cream Pies using the Banana Cream Pie recipe. Make filling for Banana Cream Pie recipe, omitting bananas and almonds. Crush 10 whole graham crackers and combine all but 2 tablespoons of them in a bowl with 1/4 cup sugar. Stir in 1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter to make crumbly mixture. Pat that mixture into 9-inch pie plate and bake at 350 degrees 10 minutes. Let cool before filling.

Spoon in cream filling, then top with Basic Meringue. Sprinkle with reserved graham-cracker crumbs before baking. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes.

Chocolate Cream Pie

Serves 8

3 cups milk

3 (1-ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

3 egg yolks, slightly beaten

1 tablespoon butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Master Pie Shell, baked

ITALIAN MERINGUE: (see note)

1/4 cup water

3/4 cup sugar

3 egg whites

1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts

Active work time: 50 minutes; total preparation time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus 1 to 2 hours cooling

Heat milk and chocolate together in saucepan over low heat until chocolate is melted, stirring occasionally.

Combine sugar, salt, cornstarch, flour and cocoa powder in saucepan. Gradually stir in hot milk mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and reaches a boil. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir 1 cup hot mixture into beaten egg yolks. Return all yolk mixture to saucepan. Bring just to simmer, stirring constantly, until custard thickens slightly. Remove from heat, and stir in butter and vanilla extract. Pour custard into bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic directly on top of custard. Cool slightly so it is not hot but still warm. Spoon custard into cooled Master Pie Shell, spreading evenly.

For meringue, combine water and sugar in small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until syrup reaches 238 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

Beat egg whites to form soft peaks, 30 seconds to 1 minute. With mixer running at medium speed, add syrup in slow stream. Continue beating until meringue is cool and stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes. Spoon meringue into pastry bag with large tip for piping. Pipe in decorative pattern over top of pie, spreading to edges.

Bake at 425 degrees until meringue is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with hazelnuts last few minutes of baking. Cool pie 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Note: This recipe makes a generous amount of Italian Meringue. You might have some left over.

Each serving: 552 calories; 435 milligrams sodium; 113 milligrams cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 80 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.63 gram fiber

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