L Is for Lemons, Lilies, and Lilac (and Lemon Pie)

Chris:

Lilies. We planted the calla lily in the side garden ten years ago, just after we bought the house. I added a second plant in the back garden just three years ago. Each March, after they have drooped, browned out, and shrunk from the heat of summer through the cold of winter, both plants come back bigger and more beautiful than ever.

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Calla lilies early April back garden 2017

Lemons.  I planted the Meyer lemon six years ago, and for three years it stayed tiny and produced no more than three small lemons per year, one year none. It was shaded by a hearty Western redbud that grew more and more dominant (and which was also crowding the peach tree on its Eastern side). So, alas, I took out the redbud. Since then, the Meyer lemon tripled in size each year until 2016, then doubled this past year. And each year since 2014 it has produced  a hundred bright yellow lemons, each about the size of a large egg.

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Meyer lemon bush January 2016

Lilac. I planted the ceanothus (AKA Western lilac) ten years ago, about the same time as the first Calla lily. While that Calla lily may now be the largest of its kind I’ve ever seen, the lilac has become the alpha plant of the side yard, a tree that has spread its boughs upward and outward across the side yard and into the neighbor’s. Its thousands of clusters of tiny lavender blooms each spring make our garden a honeybee haven that thrums with the buzz.

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honeybee on Western lilac April 2015

At the same time as the Western lilac blooms, so does the pale lavender wisteria, and together these prolific bloomers draw honeybees and bumble bees by the hundreds. The numbers who arrive vary from spring to spring. In 2015, the bee festival was small, and I feared the consequences of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). But in 2016, the reunion was the largest I’ve seen. This spring, 2017, the fiesta is again down, but much better than in 2015. Here is a video I took of the party in April 2016.

Lilies. This winter’s prodigious rains (more than 40 inches so far, twice normal) were great for the Calla lilies and the Western lilac, as the water table rose and meant they’d be ready to take off when the temps warmed. Both lily plants were a couple weeks early in showing new growth, and now in early April are richly green, prolific in new shoots, and ripe with those large white vase-like blooms.

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Calla lily and Western lilac side garden April 2017

Lilac. With its branches spreading farther than ever before and festooned with flower clusters, the two-trunked lilac tree is bending in the water-rich soil away from its berth beside the wall of the house. The pale grey-green trunks are slender, though 6 inches thick, and I can bend them back toward the wall. This species usually doesn’t last much beyond ten years, so I worry that my tree may be coming toward the end of its days. Still, it looks bloomingly healthy, and I will soon–after its clusters have fallen petal by petal to form a lavender carpet in the garden–trim away the ends of the long branches. Not only will this bring some sunlight back to the majestic white rose bush that now is covered by the lilac branches, but it will lighten the load on the aging trunks and, I hope, bring them back to their upright, youthful posture.

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Lilac tree and calla lilies, side garden, April 2017

Lemons. Growing food plants has opened my eyes to their life cycles. Did I ever before think of broccoli flowers, or of garlic’s tasty leafy shoots above ground, or of oregano looking like dead sticks in winter only to leaf out in many new stems come spring? Sure, I’d enjoyed orange-blosson honey, but had I ever seen an orange tree covered in fragrant blossoms and the tree aswirl with honeybees? Our amazing Meyer lemon, that took so long to reach its beautiful adolescence, has given up its hundred yellow fruits and now, in April, is covered in red-and-white buds, who are just beginning to open. The tiny fruit beneath each bloom will appear when the blossom falls and will slowly, slowly grow and slowly, slowly ripen through summer and fall, until the yellow suns are ready once more when the weather has grown cold and the rains have come again.

Jean:

For the Lemon Lover: Lemon Meringue Pie

Most families have a lemon-lover.  No matter how many other fruity or chocolatey desserts you prepare, these people secretly (or loudly) still prefer lemon bars or lemon meringue pie.   Chris is a lemon person, so I was not surprised that he requested a lemon meringue pie for his birthday this year.  I admit that I do not make these for him as often as I should.  The main reason is not that this pie is particularly difficult to make, but rather that there are conditions.  We’ve had a wet winter, and the weather is one of the conditions.  You don’t make lemon meringue pie when it’s very humid  or raining because the meringue won’t set up right and will “weep” more.

During a nice dry spell between storms, I decided to revisit this pie.  I started making lemon meringue pies many years ago, living in Arizona, when Sunkist was a leading citrus distributor.   This is what my Sunkist cookbook (1968 ed.) looked like, as available, at least for now, on eBay:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Sunkist-Cook-Book-1968-/262922916823?hash=item3d376d53d7:g:4IgAAOSwuLZY40ka

There are both older and newer versions available from different online sellers.  I recommend any of these, not only for the lemon meringue pie recipe but for other recipes highlighting lemons and other citrus fruits as well.

These days, the Sunkist website has a somewhat modernized version of their traditional recipe, showing a way to prepare and serve individual lemon meringue pies, which helps deal with the problems related to the preparation and serving of the meringue that covers a whole standard pie.  Check this out:

https://www.sunkist.com/recipes/?fwp_search=lemon%20meringue%20pie&fwp_quicklinks=lemon

Baking the Traditional Whole Pie

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Lemon meringue pie for Easter 2012

Assuming you want to make a traditional-looking whole pie, you need to break out the steps and think about each of them before you start, so the whole thing comes together pretty quickly.

The crust

I haven’t set out the recipe because the recipe is pretty simple, and the secret to good lemon meringue pie is not in the recipe but in the manner of preparation.  First, you must bake a single pie crust, and you can do that in any way you like, using grocery store bake-at-home pie dough if you don’t have a favorite pie crust recipe.  The most important thing here is to make sure the sides of the crust stay as high and even as possible, to hold in the filling and provide edges to attach the  meringue to.  It helps if you refrigerate the dough after fitting it into the pie pan and if you use beans or beads to make sure the sides of the crust don’t slip down the sides of the pan.  It’s okay to use high heat to try to set the crust before it gets a chance to warm and melt down the sides.  (I think a well browned crust tastes great, as well as holding together well.)

The filling

While cooking and cooling the pie crust, you can make the lemon pie filling either on top of the stove or in the microwave.  Yes, it’s that easy.  I found this recipe for microwaved lemon curd that should work just as well for a lemon pie filling.

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/70036/microwave-lemon-curd/

The Betty Crocker website provides both classic recipes and techniques and modernized options such as using the microwave.  See

https://www.bettycrocker.com/how-to/tipslibrary/baking-tips/perfect-lemon-meringue-pie-from-scratch  and

https://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/classic-lemon-meringue-pie/8f991b88-55b0-4740-b12c-251958d663a6

While lemon meringue pie necessarily involves separating eggs, I like the fact that the filling and meringue between them use all the yolks and whites you separate, so you aren’t left with one or the other to use before they spoil.   Get started on this process while chilling the uncooked pie crust so that the eggs can come to room temperature.

The meringue

The important point here is to be ready to put the filling into the pie crust and the meringue on top of the filling while the filling is still hot, so you must have your egg whites brought to room temperature and ready to beat (or have a helper beating them while you work on the filling, if you are lucky enough to have one).  You can also set the egg whites beating in your stand mixer while you work on the filling, since the beating of the meringue takes a while.  As long as you are aware of this condition starting out, you can figure out how to make it work.  Not overbeating or underbeating the egg whites is another of the “conditions,” and if you lack experience at doing this, you can find a number of tips online.

http://www.marthastewart.com/266449/meringue-guaranteeing-success

http://www.sunset.com/food-wine/techniques/weep-more-lemon-meringue-pie

http://everydaygoodthinking.com/2013/08/15/top-10-tips-for-lemon-meringue-pie/

The other important factor is to make sure the meringue completely covers the filling, sealing it tightly to the pie crust all around the edge of the pie.

I am always looking for ideas for making a higher or more stable meringue and can’t say that I have found one that works.  I have tried adding powdered egg white powder to the raw egg whites but haven’t noticed that it helps.  Some say that a Swiss or Italian meringue is better than the one we traditionally use, just like they say that Swiss or Italian buttercream icings are better than “American” buttercream, but that hasn’t induced me to make Swiss or Italian icing or meringue.  They involve heat during preparation and seem more like cookies or pavlova than meringue pie toppings.

https://www.cooksillustrated.com/features/8186-whats-the-difference-between-french-swiss-and-italian-meringues

It’s up to you how high you want to swirl and brown the whorls on top of the pie; that’s more decorative than structural.  As you can see from the photo below, mine is rather smooth and evenly browned on top because I think it may weep less that way, but you should feel free to experiment with your own balance of design and practicality.  Keep notes somewhere–in your favorite cookbook, your recipe box or notebook, or in your online blog as to what what worked best for you.

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Eating

The real key to enjoying a good lemon meringue pie?  Let it cool completely (a couple of hours) before trying to slice it, but then eat it fast.  Don’t leave it sitting around (I think it lasts best in the refrigerator if covered) for more than 2-3 days or it will disintegrate, no matter how well you made it.  Who has a problem with eating their LMP quickly?  Not us!

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Lemon meringue pie, March 2017

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