This past Saturday, Los Angeles celebrated the KCRW 4th Annual Good Food Pie Contest at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Chrystal and I won first place in the savory pie category a few years ago during the contest’s inaugural year, and we also entered the following year. When we got word of the upcoming competition, we thought, “Hey, why not, let’s give another go.” It would be fun to come up with a whole new pie creation and try to finish in the sweet department. With five different categories to choose from this year–fruit, nut, cream/chiffon/mousse, savory, or pies inspired by Chris Burden’s installation at LACMA, Metropolis II– our immediate decision was to nail down exactly what kind of pie we wanted to make. That question lead us to one pie-tastic conclusion: Banana Pudding Pie with Dulce de Leche.
We both had the initial thought to do something with dulce de leche. Then, I threw out the idea of banana pudding. Chrystal, the world’s least biggest fan of bananas, simply shrugged. With a little more coaxing, I got her to warm up to the idea. In fact, it was her suggestion to caramelize the bananas in a pool of butter, brown sugar, and dark rum, adding a new twist to the traditional beloved dessert. We decided to make a vanilla wafer crust, add in layers of homemade dulce de leche and vanilla pudding, and cap it all off with a baked meringue topping. The best banana puddings have an upper meringue layer, in my opinion. No whipped cream, and definitely no cool whip!
We made a tester pie that our friends sampled. Everything came together nicely. Well, that is, everything except for the meringue topping. It tasted fantastic but, sadly, our meringue did in fact weep its little eyes out. Before we were even ready to serve the pie, the meringue had softened after a few hours in the fridge. As you can imagine, this was disconcerting and greatly disheartening. We wanted that picturesque, beautiful meringue topping that would make Martha Stewart proud. It should be shiny, firm, and not wilting away before our eyes.
We had roughly a week before the main event, so we searched for meringue-perfecting tips. Our research yielded interesting bits of advice. For one, meringue is definitely a temperamental thing that doesn’t like moisture. Making it on a humid, rainy day can even prevent you from getting the best results. It’s always best to make your meringue pie the day you plan to serve it, as it wants to be stored at room temperate. That can certainly be problematic with cream or custard pie fillings. We knew that adding a touch of cream of tarter, or even some acid like vinegar or lemon juice, can help stabilize the stiffened egg whites. What we did not know, though, is that corn starch apparently does so as well. We stumbled upon several recipes that used corn starch as the only stabilizing agent.
Another trick for reduce the ‘weep’ is to pour the freshly whipped egg whites on top of a hot pie filling. This helps to evaporate any unwanted moisture under the meringue layer. Don’t use fresh eggs for meringue. If you have a few that have been in the fridge for several days, that’s better. Make sure you let the eggs sit at room temperature before tossing the whites into an unbelievably clean and dry metal or glass mixing bowl. Of course, you want to avoid any yolks in the egg whites, and use superfine sugar which dissolves easily. The sugar is the key and important ingredient that will determine the baked meringue’s texture. This is where we went wrong. Our initial recipe did not have the minimum amount of sugar necessary for a stiff meringue. The rule to keep in mind is 1/4 cup of sugar for every egg white. Be sure to add the sugar slowly once you have soft peaks, so that you do not overwhelm the egg whites while mixing. You can then finish off the pie at a lower heat once you add the meringue. It will brown just fine in a 300 or 325 degree oven. One final tip? For aesthetic purposes, be sure to spread the meringue completely over the filling, which you can see we did not do the first time. It would’ve been a great way to hide the weep!
I’m sure you have your own meringue misadventures. If you have any other tips to share on how to achieve the perfect meringue pie, we’d love to here them. Although several people came by to tell us that they loved our pie, including that sweet couple who brought two friends over for a slice, we didn’t win any ribbons this year. But that’s okay! We got to witness a couple hundred enthusiastic bakers gather on a beautiful, sunny day in L.A. We served our pie to several eager patrons who offered big praises and congratulations on a pie well done, and that’s all that matters. Before we knew it, there was nothing but several scattered crumbs and a few smudges of pudding. Even though we didn’t win, that, coupled with the many smiley faces enjoying our dish, was victory enough.
- 3 cups vanilla wafers
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ⅛ cup powdered sugar
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- ⅓ cup flour
- ½ cup sugar
- Dash of salt
- 3 egg yolks, beaten, whites reserved, at room temperature
- 2 cups half-and-half
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ⅛ cup brown sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 large bananas, peeled and cut into ¼" slices
- 1½ tablespoons dark rum
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup dulce de leche*
- 3 egg whites
- ½ teaspoon cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- ¾ cup superfine sugar
- In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the cookies, cinnamon, powdered sugar and sea salt until fine crumbs are made. Drizzle in the butter and blend until the mixture is fully combined.
- Dump the cookie mixture into a 9 inch pie dish and evenly press along the bottoms and sides of the dish. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust appears slightly dry along the bottom. Cool for an hour. (The crust can be made and pre-baked to 1-2 days ahead of time.)
- While the crust cools, make the pudding. In a large heat resistant, metal bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and half-and-half. Pour enough water to reach 1-2 inches up the side of the pot, then bring the water to a simmer. Set the bowl of egg mixture on top. Be sure the bubbles never touch the bottom of the bowl. Cook, stirring constantly, for 10-12 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat, and stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla until smooth.
- In a medium sized pan, heat the butter, brown sugar and salt over a medium flame until combined and melted. Add the bananas and toss to coat, cooking for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the rum and remaining vanilla and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes, or until the sugars have thickened and coated the fruit. Remove from heat and allow to cool to the touch.
- Once the crust has cooled and the pudding has set, spread the dulce de leche along the bottom and sides of the cookie crust. Top with an even layer of the bananas, followed by the pudding. Slide into an oven preheated to 325 degrees and bake for 15 minutes to reheat the pudding if it is too cool.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the whip attachment, begin beating the egg whites on medium speed, adding the cornstarch and cream of tartar first. Once you have soft peaks, approximately 1-3 minutes, raise the speed up to medium high. Slowly shake the sugar into the mixture, little by little. Continue beating the egg whites until they look glossy and voluminous and reach stiff peaks, approximately 2-4 minutes.
- Reduce the heat of the oven to 300 degrees. Remove the pie from the oven, and quickly spread the meringue mixture on top of the pie as decoratively as you like. Be sure to completely cover the pudding to seal the edges. Put the pie back in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the meringue turns golden brown.
Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a 9 x 9 cake pan or a similar baking dish. Place the baking dish into a larger roasting pan, and fill the pan up halfway with water to create a bain marie. Cover only the pan with the sweetened condensed milk tightly with aluminum foil.
Slide the nested pans into an oven preheated to 425 degrees and cook for an hour, then remove from the oven and carefully stir the liquid. It should be a caramel brown and slightly thickened. If necessary, slide it back into the oven for another 15-30 minutes, checking halfway through the additional cooking time. Remove from the oven once the mixture has reached your preferred color and texture.
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