It was mostly about the reward of pie, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For several years I joined my daughter, Flannery, and her Girl Scout troop on their annual trip to Camp Champions in Marble Falls. The outing, which usually landed in early May, was much anticipated by the girls, even though each year seemed to be cursed by dramatic Texas weather. There were frigid nights in drafty cabins and torrential thunderstorms, and one terrifying year, a tornado chased us out of town.
Mother Nature, plus a hysteria fueled by s’mores and the energy of several hundred girls, made our departure each Sunday morning feel like a small victory, akin to making it through an episode of Survivor.
The treat at the end of those epic weekends was breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe, the beloved institution known for its pies and recognizable by its awesome neon signage. One year we gave Flannery’s bestie, Clara, a ride to the restaurant. As we waited in line for a table, we all became mesmerized by the cooler displaying whopping wedges of fruit pies, cream pies and custard-based show stealers crowned with implausibly high clouds of meringue.
Clara, eyes wide and mother conveniently en route, asked if she might order pie for breakfast. Naturally, I acquiesced. When the massive wedge of lemon meringue pie was placed in front of her, her reaction—a mixture of disbelief, wonder and pure joy—made us all burst out laughing. Years later we all vividly remember Clara’s meringue pie moment, which speaks to another attribute of pies: They can create cherished memories.
For many people, myself included, certain pies are steeped in memories or connected to memorable occasions. Coconut cream pie? The time I was lucky enough to interview Lyle Lovett over a couple slices in Old Town Spring. Late June means Stonewall peaches and galettes (rustic French tarts) several nights a week. Billowy meringue pies always make me think of my friend Rebecca Rather (more on her later).
“Pie, in general, makes people happy,” concurs Dave Plante, owner of Blue Bonnet Cafe. “If you come through our line between the hours of 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, chances are you’re gonna see our huge mixers full of a fluffy white mixture bubbling up and out of the side,” Plante says. “It’s mesmerizing to watch.”
The fascination with sky-high meringue is evident in the surprise of customers at Hico’s Koffee Kup Family Restaurant, where the motto is “Pie fixes everything.”
“When they see the meringue in the pie case, their jaw drops open,” says manager and co-owner Irene Leach, whose first job at the Koffee Kup in 1987 was baking pies. Now, Adela Rangel starts baking five flavors, plus two sugar-free options, at 6:30 each morning, as she has for 24 years.
Blue Bonnet’s Plante tells me that customers often inquire how they pile the meringue so high—a trick he attributes to seasoned bakers who have been whipping egg whites and sugar for years.
So what is meringue, actually? In its simplest form, it’s a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites and granulated sugar. To achieve a perfectly smooth texture, the sugar is typically added slowly—a tablespoon at a time.
For further insight I called a noted meringue whisperer—Rebecca Rather, chef at Emma + Ollie in Fredericksburg and the creative mind behind her wildly popular “big-hair meringue arts” (featuring spiky meringue tops reminiscent of retro hairstyles). “Once I went to a Weight Watchers meeting, and some of the women there yelled at me and said I was responsible for their extra pounds,” she recalls with a laugh. “You know I love meringue but only when it’s done right; it needs to be stiff and strong and hold up. I don’t like it when it’s slobbery, watery and nasty.”
Rather perfected her meringue game years ago when she was the pastry chef at Tony’s in Houston. “I used to decorate huge ice cream bombs with meringue, and I had to do it in the freezer,” she recalls. For all her desserts, including the banana pudding served at Emma + Ollie, she still relies on the meringue recipe in her first book, The Pastry Queen.
For Rather’s method, the sugar is whisked with egg whites over a pan of simmering water until it dissolves and then whipped with an electric mixer until it’s stiff and shiny. The key, she tells me, is to beat the whites slowly in the beginning, until they’re light and foamy, and then beat them at high speed until stiff peaks form.
I knew Cathy Barrow, author of Pie Squared (a cookbook devoted to rectangular “slab pies”), would have opinions on the subject. “I think we all need more meringue in our life,” she tells me. “It tastes so much like campfire marshmallows and makes the kitchen smell great as it toasts under the broiler. If you have a blowtorch, bronzing meringue is a badass move as a party trick.”
Preparing meringue is also a smart way to make the most of leftover ingredients. “If you make ice cream or flan or many cakes or enriched doughs, you’ll end up with egg whites, and they keep a long time,” Barrow says. She keeps hers in a covered jar in the fridge. “Sometimes I make Pavlovas and then turn those into fruit fools,” she adds. (Named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the dessert consists of a crisp meringue base topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.) “But whenever I can,” Barrow continues, “I cover the surface or pipe or plop a pretty meringue edge on a pie. Don’t limit this action to lemon or lime pies. A meringue topping on a bumbleberry pie is amazing.”
Pie recipes handed down from one generation to the next are particularly transporting. “My grandma’s chocolate meringue pie is my favorite thing to eat in the entire world,” says Lisa Fain, author of The Homesick Texan cookbooks and food blog. “Whether it makes an appearance after a good day or a bad one, it never fails to lift my spirits. It’s always a declaration of love.”
This particular pie, Fain adds, is more than the sum of its parts. “It’s a simple recipe, and her meringues are more of an accent rather than a statement since they’re never all that tall. The combination of fluffy topping, rich custard and salty crust may appear humble, but it’s the finest dessert that I know.”