A Lemon Meringue Pie For Sylvia Plath

by Cara Nicoletti on February 28, 2014

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I’ve been quiet lately, I know, and I’m sorry. But listen, guys, my first draft goes in in 10 days. I’ve been pushing all my hard-to-write essays until the end, and now here we are, 10 days away and they are all hard. Rather than reaching for a novel to comfort me, lately I’ve been turning to the letters and journals of the writers I love, hoping to glean some kind of writerly wisdom about this process which, so far, has been the most difficult and most exhilarating of my life. Sylvia Plath holds a particularly special place in my heart, because her childhood home was directly across the street from the house I grew up in. I spent many long hours staring at the window I imagined I was her bedroom. It seemed incredible to me—unbelievable—that such a simple box of a house, with its white clapboard siding and shiny black shutters could have contained a mind so enormous.

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Plath’s journals are full of passages concerning her writing—rejections, anxiety, writer’s block. I was feeling guilty about the fact that Plath’s torment made me feel slightly better, until she admitted to feeling exactly the same way while reading Virgina Woolf’s diaries. In the passage, Plath has just bicycled into town and picked up some groceries for various baking and cooking projects, and she begins to worry that seeking solace in the kitchen and becoming too domestic will lessen her abilities as a writer.

Loaded my black patent leather bag with sherry, cream cheese (for grammy’s apricot tarts), thyme, basil, bay leaves (for Wendy’s exotic stews—a facsimile of which now simmers on the stove), golden wafers (such an elegant name for Ritz crackers), apples and green pears.
I was getting worried about becoming too happily stodgily practical: instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing—I go make an apple pie, or study the Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.

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Reading the journal of Virginia Woolf makes her feel instantly better, both about her culinary escapism, and the recent rejections she has received from various publications.

And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels Saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less!—and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her, somehow. I love her…

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This is not the only passage in Plath’s journals dedicated to food—far from it. Plath writes constantly and passionately about cooking and eating. She writes of the beauty of “great ice raw oysters on their scraggly lace, blue eye peackockish shells,” “fat-encrusted pork-chops,” “cold succulent honeyed pink grapefruit,” and “shrimps hot in red sauce.” She bakes devils food cake and date-nut bars, fills large pottery bowls with applesauce she makes from green apples she picks herself. For lunch one day she eats “steaming & savory fish soup…smacking good all onion-essence, chunks of soaked fish & potato steaming, hot, bacon bits, butter crackers foundering in it,” and another day freshly-shucked quahogs with lemon—“salty, gritty, but good.”

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Plath’s greatest culinary triumph is her lemon meringue pie. “I make a damn good lemon meringue pie,” she says, in what is one of the most confident declarations in the entire collection of journals. The pie comes up again and again–she calls it her “trusty angel-topped lemon meringue pie,” and in one of my favorite entries says: “Baked a lemon meringue pie, cooled lemon custard crust on cold bathroom windowsill, stirring in black night stars.”

We’re lucky to be still in the midst of citrus season, when lemons are at their brightest and most delicious. I used regular lemons for this pie, rather than the in-season meyer lemons, because I sometimes find meyer lemons a little bit sweet for my taste. This curd is a bright spot in these last days of winter (and in these last days of frantically writing). It is tart and sweet and buttery, it’s damn good, if I do say so myself.

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Lemon Meringue Pie
Makes 1 10” pie—about 8 servings
Traditionally, lemon meringue pies use a regular pie crust, but I really like the way it tastes with a graham cracker crust. We’re going to make the crust first so that we have it ready to pour the curd into. I used a 10”x2” tart pan with a removable bottom, but a regular pie pan will work fine. If it’s shallower, your meringue will just be higher, which is never a bad thing.

Graham Cracker Crust
Ingredients:
16 graham cracker sheets, cracked into pieces
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick + 2 Tablespoons butter, melted

Directions:
Pre-heat your oven to 350F. In a food processor, pulse your graham cracker pieces with sugar and salt until a fine meal forms. Add melted butter in a slow stream while pulsing, until the crust comes together. Mold crust evenly into tart pan, being sure to press it hard into the corners. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is fragrant and the edges are golden brown. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

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Lemon Curd
Because lemons have such high acidity, it’s important to use as little metal as possible while preparing the curd. Use glass bowls instead of metal and a plastic whisk or rubber spatula. This will prevent the metallic flavor that you taste so often in lemon desserts.
Ingredients:
1 ¼ cups sugar
zest of 5 lemons
juice of 4 lemons
4 eggs, room temperature
1 packet knox powdered gelatin (.35 ounces, 7 grams)
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Directions:
Fill a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, ½ full with water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
In a large glass bowl that will fit on top of your boiling water vessel, rub sugar and lemon zest together with your fingers until the zest’s oil is released and the mixture becomes fragrant. Mix the zest throughout the sugar.
Add lemon juice, eggs, and gelatin to the sugar/zest mixture and whisk until fully combined.
Heat over double-boiler, whisking constantly, until the temperature of the curd reaches 179F (82C)
Once the curd reaches temp, strain it through a fine mesh sieve into another glass vessel. Whisk softened butter into curd, and pour the curd into your prepared pie-crust. Set on wire rack while you prepare your meringue.

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Meringue
Ingredients:
5 large egg-whites at room temperature
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
¾ cups sugar

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 375F.
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add your eggs, cream of tartar and salt and whip on medium until the eggs hold soft peaks.
Increase the speed to high and add sugar in a slow stream, beating until the egg whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks.

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Assembly:
Spoon meringue onto lemon curd, making sure the meringue touches the edge of the crust on all sides to create a seal.
Bake meringue in the center of the oven until golden-brown, about 15 minutes.
Cool on a rack for 2 hours and in the fridge for an additional hour to be absolutely certain that your curd has set.

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Leave a Comment

Gemma February 28, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Oh my…this looks so incredible. Another great post! You’re the best.

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Anne Green February 28, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Fantastic post – and gorgeous photos. I love Sylvia Plath too and wasn’t aware she wrote so wonderfully about food. I’ve got to get onto her journals! And into the lemon meringue pie!

Reply

Brettski February 28, 2014 at 4:11 pm

I never knew that about the metal and lemons! Very cool!

This looks amazing…nothing quite like a good graham cracker crust!

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Marcy February 28, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Wow! We just found out that the town is trying to get historic home status for
the “house across the street” that Plath was living in when she wrote The Bell Jar. Fingers
crossed! Beautiful pie Cara… and absolutely wonderful post. I have definitely been missing
Yummy Books!Sending you strength and luck as you reach the finish line!

Reply

Rebeck March 1, 2014 at 7:50 am

Delightful post with gorgeous photos. I hope this pie comforts you as you embark on the coming days. Best wishes as you wrap up your other project!

Reply

india March 3, 2014 at 11:11 am

mouth, watering.

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Elizabeth March 12, 2014 at 11:30 pm

Wow. You have a beautiful website; I feel that I could spend hours on it. And that cannot be 21 Tablespoons of Butter, can it?

Reply

Cara Nicoletti March 14, 2014 at 9:49 am

Elizabeth, I’m afraid to tell you it really is! After your comment I put a note in preceding the recipe because I realize this is an absolutely insane amount of butter. This curd would still be good with a little as 5 Tablespoons of butter (not AS good, of course, because butter is the greatest), but still very, very good. Thanks for reading!

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