Zesting for Life

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
Grate heavens, I have had an epiphany, and its name is Microplane.
If you cook much, you may be thinking about now, “Boy, is she slow on the uptake.”
Yes, I know Microplanes aren’t exactly new anymore. But I resisted these graters for years. I’m a reforming gadgetholic, and after all, I had a perfectly serviceable box grater, plus a good Zyliss drum grater for those times when I felt flush and bought real Parmesan, even if it was a little awkward to use.
And increasingly, I simply took strips of citrus zest off with a vegetable peeler and ground them with sugar in my food processor, to give a stronger, better-distributed flavor. But I always felt like a bit of a rebel when I did so, because if I pressed even vaguely too hard on a lemon with the peeler, I’d get pith, the bitter white under the sweet-tart yellow.

Finally, I oh-so-casually mentioned to my sister that I was contemplating getting a Microplane. Smart woman that she is, she took the hint, and there it was under the Christmas tree.
Even then, I didn’t jump to use it. It wasn’t until several weeks later, when I got a severe hankering for lemon-rosemary bars, that I pulled it from its wrapper.
And with utter ease, feather-light lemon zest drifted down into a puffy cloud. No longer did  I hold my grater in a death grip, pressing down hard with the hand that rocked the lemon. Instead, the zest came off in a flash, and I almost couldn’t tell, so thin a layer did the grater remove.
Since then, I’ve been grating like a fool. Man may not be able to live on lemon bars alone, but I could.
But oh, there was more coming. Hard Parmesan in my drum grater? Ciao, baby. Stringy ginger? How about a seductively silky puree instead? And pillows of chocolate, so delicate you just might want to lay your head on them.
Not that Microplanes were invented for this; they started out as great wood rasps in 1990. In 1994, an Ottawa woman ready to bake a cake got annoyed with her grater and picked up a new tool her husband, a hardware store owner, had brought home. Since then, Microplanes in all shapes and sizes have come out; but I like the original, generally available for about $12.
All this fun has brought me back to the joys of lemons. One of my oldest friends has always been able to predict what dessert I would order, if the menu listed a lemon one (with bonus points if it included poppy seeds). But I hadn’t been as gung-ho in recent years to pucker up.
For a while, my son, and then his baby sister, took up the slack. He loved to bite on lemons as a baby, screw up his face in joyful horror, then ask for more. Clearly, babies, with their unjaded palates, comprehend the sheer joy of lemons, for their tongues if not their tooth enamel (at least they get a second go-round of teeth).
Of course, what was I going to do with these mounds of zest? I thought about lemon chicken, lemony green beans, lemon-rosemary or lemon-thyme cookies or cake or shortbread … but mostly, I thought about lemon meringue pie.
For years, that has been my father’s favorite. We weren’t big on boring birthday cakes; instead, in our house, you were just as likely to get a birthday pie or torte. Candles don’t always stand proud in meringue, but we took that tradeoff.
My mother, a great cook, liked making the pie for Dad, but she found from-scratch recipes disappointing — a lemon lover herself, they were never tart or lemony enough for her palate. Then she happened across a Jell-o pamphlet that called for doctoring a box of lemon pie filling, and never looked back.
Faced with all my zest, I decided to test that out for myself. As a mild control freak, I prefer making most everything from scratch. But I’ve always adored Dad’s pie, and wondered if anything could top that powerful lemon flavor — and whether if, on a more serious study, it would be too obvious that I was eating Jell-o.
Most recipes call for some variation of a simple cornstarch-thickened filling of sugar, water, egg yolks, and lemon zest and juice. They’re good, and aside from the risk of overcooking the eggs, easy. (Generally, the presence of cornstarch protects the eggs from scrambling, but it may happen anyway. Just pour the filling through a strainer to get out any overcooked bits.)
But good isn’t great. When we tried Mother’s pie side-by-side with a standard recipe, the difference was startling. If you can overlook the nearly neon-yellow of the Jell-o pie, you’ll find the flavor worth the ignominy of using the box.
The one change I did make was to its meringue. Mother’s original recipe calls for just three egg whites, producing a somewhat lazy cloud atop the lemon. Instead, go for at least four whites, and use a cooked cornstarch mixture to stabilize and tenderize them. And make the meringue before the filling. Don’t worry that it might collapse while you wait; it won’t, and swirling the meringue onto a truly hot filling helps keep it from weeping (leaking moisture onto the filling).
You might also consider making a Swiss meringue to ensure safety from salmonella. I don’t like the texture quite as much for a pie, but it’s a reasonable option. To do this, bring a saucepan filled with a few inches of water to a simmer. In a large metal mixing bowl, whisk together the egg whites and 6 tablespoons sugar. Place over saucepan, being sure water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Whisk constantly until whites are quite warm and the sugar dissolves; if you have a thermometer, this should be between 140 and 160 degrees. Remove from the heat, add the cream of tartar, and beat the whites with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for 7 to 10 minutes, until they form a very thick meringue.
Lemon meringue pie does have one drawback: Although it can hold a day or two, it’s best the day it’s made. When it’s your birthday, and you eat half the pie, feel free to share that information with any horrified onlookers.

Recipe: Dad’s Favorite Lemon Meringue Pie

First published in the Independent Weekly, April 7, 2004

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