If I had a dollar for every person who, over the years, said to me “I cannot bake”, my savings account would be much plumper. Maybe because I found baking and dessert making highly entertaining since a young age, I don’t believe there is such thing as an inability to bake. Anyone can learn the basics for a decent cake or cookie and the few tricks for a perfect meringue or custard. As long as you don’t mess with the instructions: only experience will allow you to add a little bit of this and subtract a little bit of that. At the beginning, better stick with the recipe.
Italian friends and family who come to visit often marvel at what comes out of my oven because Italian homemade desserts are usually fairly plain and modest looking, the descendents of “cucina povera”, but no less delicious. But I get their amazement, it was the same one I felt when I started visiting Great Britain and was introduced to scones, mince pies, trifles and messes. The US might not have given the world pie but it certainly refined it. And who doesn’t like pie?
I love making fruit pies, savory ones, meringue or custard pies: give me a crust and I will happily fill it. I am firmly in the all butter crust camp as I have always found shortening rather disgusting to the touch (apologies to any friends in the South who will consider my pronouncement anathema). A beautiful crust will make for a beautiful pie but I will concede that pie dough takes practice: you can nail it first time around but only making it over and over will give you a feel for it and will help you improve it over time and make it your own.
But it’s not crust we are talking about today. Rather, I love to find ways to encourage people to bake because, if you are committed to consuming the calories, isn’t it better to do it over something you made, where you can control more easily which ingredients get used?
It’s not hard to find decent pre-made pie crusts at the market: all butter, whole-wheat, gluten-free. If you are short on time, or just intimidated by crust, they got you covered. And then you are free to concentrate on the filling.
Which is exactly what I did a few days ago when I made coconut meringue pie for a dinner invitation. I was really short on time and had no pie dough in the freezer. So I bought a crust, made a custard, and whipped some meringue just before leaving the house. I had all the ingredients in the pantry, including some unsweetened coconut flakes I like to keep on hand to sprinkle on my cereal or in my smoothies. If you make a mean chocolate pudding, why not use it to fill a pie and top it with whipped cream? Or citrus custard? Or any fruit bound together by sugar, cornstarch and some spices? The possibilities are endless.
My coconut meringue pie was just a vanilla custard with the addition of coconut flakes. No coconut milk was involved. It might be nice to sprinkle some coconut flakes on top of the meringue too or maybe dust some cocoa powder. Or whatever takes your fancy.
For the custard
2 C Milk (500 ml)
1/2 C Sugar (100 g)
1 T Butter, melted (15 g)
2 T Cornstarch (16 g)
1 ts Vanilla Extract
1 ts Salt
1 C Unsweetened coconut flakes (75 g)
For the meringue:
3 Egg whites
1 ts Cream of Tartar
6 T White sugar (85 g)
1 pie crust, either homemade or store-bought.
- Pre-bake the crust until pale golden, following the package instructions or at 425F for 10/15 minutes.
- Scald the milk.
- In a metal bowl whisk the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt. Add the milk, whisking constantly, and place the bowl on a pot of gently boiling water, making sure the water doesn’t actually touch the bowl.
- Whisk constantly, for about 5 minutes, until the custard thickens. Take it off the heat and add the butter and coconut. Mix well and pour into the prepared crust.
- Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a standing mixer and whisk until frothy. With the mixer on medium speed, add the sugar in a steady stream. Increase the speed to medium high, until the meringue is thick and glossy.
- Spread the meringue over the pie, creating some peaks with a spatula.
- Bake at 425F (220C) for about 15 minutes (or if you have a blowtorch, this is a good time to use it).
- Refrigerate for at least a couple of hours and serve.