Flavors of Summer
The long spell of hot weather that was hovering over the Pacific Northwest has broken now. The skies are bright and brushed with wispy clouds and the morning air feels cool against my skin. That cooler air beckons me back into the kitchen. Still the heat is simmering in my mind, especially as I stir my kitchen memories on a quiet Monday morning.
When I was a child something was always happening in the kitchen, no matter the ambient temperature. Even on the hottest of summer days there was food to prepare and people to be fed. We all know that to make a cake you have to break a few eggs and, of course, that's true not only of cakes but almost everything that people like to eat and think of fondly as they contemplate the flavors of summer. Fried chicken takes a skillet of hot grease to transform it into crisp tender mouthfuls of southern perfection. Corn on the cob takes a kettle of boiling water to bring out it’s bright color and juicy sweetness just as pasta or potatoes for a summer salad must take their turn on the stove top.
Even the fluffy lightness of many a dreamy summer dessert that comes to mind as "cool" or "tart" spends some time in a hot oven. Think of Baked Alaska, or the mountains of foam piled invitingly high on top of a Lemon Meringue Pie. Even such refreshing desserts must be baked to set those golden peaks. The alchemy of the kitchen is almost always hot work! To delight and nourish family and friends, someone has to do it. When I was a girl that someone was my Aunt Hen.
Of course there are dishes that can both feed a family and avoid the heat. These days if you can't stand the heat there is no shame in getting out of the kitchen but when I was a girl such options were fewer. Produce from the garden needed to be cooked or preserved. Having grown up on a farm during the depression, and ever thankful for its abundant fresh produce, my aunt was reluctant to let food go to waste. Besides take-out and deli selections were pricier than home cooked, and harder to come by, and relying on what are now common alternatives to cooking an evening meal were then thought to reflect a lazy character or a lack of thrift. I think my aunt considered them beneath her dignity for much of her life. My uncle worked hard and when he was alive my aunt saw it as her responsibility to feed him well with hot home cooked meals, regardless of the season. She took pride in her skills in the kitchen and the pleasure others took in the food she prepared.
Later in life she had my brother, my dad and I to feed and she still took her role as the family cook seriously. Even after my brother and I moved away from home, summer visits to Aunt Hen's house would often find her standing in her fragrant, steamy kitchen stirring something over a hot stove, sweat rising on her brow as a box fan at the periphery of the room blew a scant breeze her way.
On one such morning she offered to make a pie for me to take to my grandfather’s house later that day. As she cooked she carefully showed me how she made a meringue topped pie. We cooked the filling and smoothed it into the waiting pie shell. Then we beat the egg whites until frothy and followed one of her favorite recipes to create an impressive meringue that she confidently told me, "Would Not Weep!"
I guess I never took the problem of weeping meringue seriously back then. I wasn’t much of a pie eater really and I didn’t think too hard about what made a pie perfect or what caused it to be a disaster. Apparently though, weeping meringue is an age-old problem and a real challenge to some bakers, especially when it is humid, and there are few places more humid than my aunt’s house, near the banks of the Ohio River, on a summer's day. No one likes a damp sticky layer between pie filling and topping, and no one likes sticky beads forming on top of a pie, especially when they are the one who has cut in the butter, rolled out the crust, stood over the filling as it cooks, or whipped the meringue to stiff peaks.
My aunt had an answer for that, a tip she loved to share well into her eighties and even after she had moved to a nursing home. Even then she would call me and direct me to her cookbooks asking me to look up the recipe she treasured and eagerly wanted to share with her new friends. With a smile, and my heart melting in my chest, I would lovingly open her old cookbook and read her carefully handwritten recipe to her over the phone:
Meringue That Won’t Weep
From page 13 of Aunt Hen’s “Favorite Recipes” (the blue volume)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons sugar
½ cup water
3 egg whites (preferably at room temperature)
6 Tablespoons sugar
Place cornstarch, sugar and water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until clear. Set aside.
Beat egg whites until foamy and beginning to peak. Add cooled cornstarch mixture.
Continue beating the egg whites while gradually adding 6 Tablespoons of sugar. Beat until very creamy.
Pile meringue on pie spreading it to touch the edge of the crust all around.
Bake 30 minutes at 325 degrees, or until the top is kissed with a golden brown color.
Serve with confidence and enjoy!