Both of my grandmothers were fantastic cooks. One of the joys of my life growing up was having supper at either of their houses because you always knew it was going to be something fabulous. One grandmother’s cooking had a definite Southern flair: pinto beans simmered with a huge slab of salt pork and freshly baked corn bread on the side or country fried chicken complete with “white gravy” and biscuits. Yum! The other grandmother was a whiz at “comfort foods”. Her breaded veal cutlets were to die for, and no one made Macaroni and Cheese like she did. No one. Now that I’m hungry, and have a need to raid the pantry, let’s press on….
Both of my grandmothers are now gone (may they rest in peace), but their legacies live on in my cooking. Many of my recipes came from them, which helps keep all those good memories I had alive…whenever I pull one of those recipes out, I think of them and have a story or two to tell about them to the Izzlets. And while their styles of cooking were vastly different, there was one area of expertise they held in common and that area was PIE. Apple pies with bits of Macintosh apples and just enough sweet and tart to create a delicious balance. Pie crusts so flaky, they’d practically break into a million pieces if you blew on them (neither of them were from Oklahoma though….don’t get it? Oh well. I do…that’s enough to make it funny for ME!). To me, as a child, their pies were the crowning glory of their culinary excellence, and the one thing I always looked forward to learning how to master myself.
The years went by, and I eventually married Mr Izz, and the Izzlets started to accumulate. The first few years of pie making were hard…my crusts just didn’t cut it (if you talk to Mr Izz, he’ll more than gladly tell you all about how many times he’s “saved” my pie crust….but he can start his own blog to tell you because I refuse to). No flakes. Or my fillings weren’t flavourful enough. It was always something. But after much trial and error, and frustration I might add, I had them down pat. Everything as it should be. My pies were sought after for family functions…”You are making the pies, aren’t you?” I had finally come into my own in the art of baking pies. I was a master!….almost. There was one pie I had yet to master, and this “lack of mastery” was like a black spot on my culinary scorecard. It was, at least in my mind, the crème de la crème…the proof positive of total pie genius. It was the Lemon Meringue Pie, and I couldn’t, no matter how closely I followed the recipe, get it right. This probably wouldn’t have been a big deal…not everyone who is an accomplished pie baker can make the perfect Lemon Meringue pie, right? But for me, it was different. My Granny (the “comfort food” grandmother) was the Lemon Meringue Pie QUEEN. Her Lemon Meringue pies were absolutely the best in the world, no exceptions (no, I am not biased). Granny’s Lemon Meringue pies were always perfect…perfect blend of lemony tartness and sugary sweetness; perfectly flaky crust; perfect everything. They were totally yummy (yummy being a culinary term, of course), and I would beg her to make them for me. And she, being the doting grandmother that she was, gladly obliged when she could. Her pies were her crowning glory (in my mind anyway) and so it only made good sense to me that I should recreate them. Perfectly, as hers were perfect. No problem.
So I set forth to make my very first Lemon Meringue pie…I had motivation too, for my father in law, who loved Lemon Meringue pie and hadn’t had one made from scratch in years, had asked me to make one with the other pies I was making for a family get together. I was excited! I had perfected my perfectly flaky crust..the lemon filling would be cake…umm….pie…oh, it would be EASY. At least that’s what I thought. I read through Granny’s recipe, gathered up all my ingredients and went to work. I mixed the dry ingredients, then the wet. I squeezed my lemons and grated off the zest. I put the egg whites to the side for the meringue, mixed everything else all together, and tasted. Hmmm…there was something way off. Too much zest, but I really couldn’t get it out now that it was in. Maybe it would mellow as I cooked it. In fact, I was sure it would. Mmmmhmmmm…
The cooking was going to be easy (snort). I just had to wait for it all to thicken. The water in the bottom of the double boiler began to boil, and my lemony mixture started to heat up. I stirred and I stirred, waiting for it to thicken. Then I stirred some more….not long now, I thought. More stirring, more checking, more glancing at the clock to see how long I had been at it. After about an hour (!), I finally came to he conclusion it wasn’t going to thicken, as the watery mixture poured off the spoon. Maybe it will as it cools….although at this point I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Sure enough, my far too nice father in law was forced to smile and compliment the lemon zest soup with the side of mushy pie crust I placed in front of him apologetically. To this day, I still have no idea what I did wrong, but my fiasco was to the be the first of many more attempts with varying results…all bad. And since a girl can only take so much, I finally swore off them completely. Granny’s legacy would die the death. I was a failure.
Fast forward several years to the present. My 17 year old son expresses interest in baking pies for his dinner night (the child chooses dinner and dessert, and also has to help cook it all). Turns out his favourite pie is, you guessed it, Lemon Meringue, although I have no idea how that happened. It’s not like I had ever made it for him. So he tells me that’s what he wants to make. I just stare at him. “You’re sure??” I ask in a small voice. “Yeah!” he answers all too confidently. No way…I have visions of past failures flash before my eyes. There is no way this can be done. I close my eyes, sigh, and say “Sure, we can do that.” Now I was committed. What have I done??
His dinner night approaches far too quickly, but it’s too late to back out. So, I read through Granny’s recipe…it had been some time since I’d done that…then read through it again, just in case. I then gathered up the ingredients and we went to work. My son squeezed the lemons as I separated the eggs. We mixed everything but the egg whites together and began to cook the whole mixture on the stovetop in a double boiler…it was almost like déja vu. I cringed as he stirred, preparing myself for the worst that I was sure was to come at any moment. After about 20 minutes, he asked “Is this thick enough?” I hesitated, then looked at the spoon in his hand, and surveyed what was in it. I turned the spoon over…and almost all of it stayed on the spoon. Let me reiterate that bit…the mixture stayed on the spoon! I started to get excited and took another spoonful just to see, and got the same result. By this time I as laughing giddily…my son thought I was daft, if the look he gave me was any indication. But it had worked!! We poured the pudding-like mixture into the pie crust…gleefully, at least on my part. As it cooled, we made the meringue, put it onto the pie, put it into the oven to brown, and I am happy to report, it came out PERFECTLY. We had done it! I know that Granny would have proud of me, and I know that I am more than proud to carry on that part of her legacy. Maybe someday my grandchildren will call me the Lemon Meringue Pie Queen.
So as I eat this last piece, and it brings me back to Granny’s kitchen, smelling those wondrous smells, I am happy. Happy that I tried again; happy that I can share my memories with my children in such a delicious way. And mostly, I am happy that I had such a grandmother that would take the time to give me some of the best memories of my life. So as I sit here, it’s almost like I am that little girl in my grandmothers kitchen again drinking a cup of tea and having a slice of her famous pie. Thank you, Granny….this one’s for you!