Sometimes I think it's good to know your limitations. Right? Because otherwise you wind up in a frothy, sweaty, cranky pile with the Failed Overachiever Blues, wondering where's the joy in "Joy to the World!" You know, it's officially the holidays and, oh boy, is it easy to get overwhelmed.
For the last 8 years, I've cooked Thanksgiving dinner at my house. It's a marathon and a half because we generally have a fairly large crowd that could probably provide enough bodies for two footballs teams, plus subs left over to warm the bench. Often, I've even got to have an extra turkey breast in the side oven because the one massive gobbler isn't quite enough. And I love it! I totally do. And normally at this point in the afternoon on this day before the giving of yearly thanks I am knee-deep in brussel sprouts and turkey stock and puff pastry and who all knows what else, getting ready for the big annual feast. This year though, I gave it up.
Definitely not for good, but it occurred to me that knowing when to say yes to a gift is the best way to appreciate the heck out of it, and maybe even enjoy yourself in the meantime. Last weekend was the big baby shower for 80 give or take at our house; the day after, I drove 7 hours to Charlottesville, VA, for a story I'm working on for Imbibe magazine. I got back last night and have to write the thing, plus several others waiting in line to get done before my editors string me up the proverbial flag poles. Sunday I've got to drive upstate to another baby shower (and have to finish knitting the blanket I've been working on for forever and a day). Then I leave for Spain a couple days after that for another story. And then there's all the rest of the stuff that fills in the blanks in life. It's just a whole bunch of things happening back to back, and to try to whip up the usual feast was seriously stressing me out, so my nice sister-in-law Josie volunteered to cook it this year. And I'll be damned if I didn't pass the baton.
This means that all I've got to do make is cranberry sauce and a couple of pies -- that's it. Woot, woot! Seriously, I can't begin to tell you the weight this lifted off my shoulders this year. But here's the thing: Josie's husband and the kids all love apple pie, so that's an easy one, but the fact of the matter is Josie hates fruit pie. And none of them really dig pumpkin. What Josie does like is lemon-meringue, and as totally untraditional as that may sound, it's exactly what I'm going to make just for her. I know, I know -- there's nothing autumnal or harvesty or Turkey Day-ish about lemon meringue at all, but then again, maybe there is: The day is about being thankful, right? It's about being with your family or other near and dear if you're lucky enough to have such people around you, enjoy their company, and stuff yourselves silly. I don't think it's so bad to change a little, especially when the point is express your gratitude, and what better way than with desert, I say. Dan was shocked when I told him I'd relinquished control of the whole meal; "I can't believe you did that," he said bewildered. I couldn't either, and yet it freed me up to feel calmer, more generous of spirit, and instead of freaking out over whether my mash are going to wind up glue-like, I'm looking forward to watching Godzilla movies with my niece and nephew and falling into a turkey coma post-dish washing.
One of my all-time favorite pie books is a slim, unassuming little volume,
James McNair's Pie Cookbook. It's easy to bypass this one for others that are thick and seemingly chock full of every wonderful recipe you could ever want, but I'm really glad I stumbled upon this one. The recipes are great, and the "big things in small packages" tenet is apparent by the sticky pages and spilled-upon cover that's definitely given me my money's worth. He's got your apple and pumpkin in here, too (and they're very good), but his lemon meringue is a thing of beauty, and I can't think of a better recipe to use to give my own thanks this year.
Lemon Meringue Pie
(makes one 9-inch pie, serves 6-8)
For the pie:
6 TBSP corn starch
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 TBSP unsalted butter at room temperature
3 egg yolks (reserve whites for topping)
2 tsp grated or minced lemon zest
For the meringue topping:
5 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
pinch of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar, preferably superfine
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the pastry:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 stick cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup or more ice water
For the crust, combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl and mix well. Using two dinner knives or your fingertips, cut the butter into the dry ingredients as quickly as possible until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the ice water over the mixture and combine with a fork or your fingertips just until the dough comes together. If the dough seems too crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Turn the mixture onto a sheet of waxed paper, gather into a ball and press into a thick flat disk about 5 inches in diameter. Bring the paper around to enclose the dough and refrigerate for about 15 minutes to "relax" the dough for a more tender crust.
To roll out the dough, remove from 'fridge and place on the middle off a piece of waxed paper and 12 inches square. Cover the pastry with a second waxed paper sheet. Allow to soften for 5 minutes. Roll the dough from the center toward the edges, reducing the pressure as you near the edges to form a circle about 1/8 inch thick, with the edges about 1 to 2 inches larger than the top of your pie pan. Discard the top layer of wax paper, invert the dough into the pan, and peel away the wax paper. Press the dough lightly into the pan with your fingers and crimp the edges. Chill for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degress, fill the center with pie weights or line with wax paper and top with rice, and bake the crust for 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven, discard the weights or rice and wax paper, and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until completely browned. Set aside.
To make the filling, in a heavy saucepan, combine the cornstarch, sugar, and salt. Gradually stir in the cold water and lemon juice, then the boiling water. Place over medium-low heat and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Cook until thick, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the butter, and stir until the butter melts.
Beat the egg yolks in a small, heatproof bowl. Slowly beat in about 1/4 cup of the cornstarch mixture. Return this mixture to the mixture in the pan. Stir in the lemon zest. Return to the heat and cook until thickened, about 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and let cool about 15 minutes. Pour into prepared pie shell.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the egg whites in a stainless steel bowl set over simmering water and heat until warm to the touch. Beat until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and continue beating until the whites form soft peaks. Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and continue beating until stiff, glossy peaks form. Spread the meringue over the pie filling, making sure the meringue touches the innter edge of the pastry to prevent weeping and shrinkage. Using a spatula or knife blade, swirl the top of the egg whites decoratively. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.