Cooking

American Beauty

Master the mile-high lemon meringue pie, plus scores of other nostalgic desserts
Lemon Meringue Pie from BraveTart
Photos: Tasting Table

Proust had his madeleine, but for Stella Parks, it's a different cookie.

Recalling a tiny pack of Oreos she found while she was living abroad in Japan, the pastry chef/blogger/food editor/cookbook author says, "I never got homesick in the typical ways—I didn't miss American culture." It was when she wanted the simple pleasure of a PB&J or chocolate chip cookie that she missed home the most. And when she laid hands on a tiny package of Oreos, one bite instantly lit up something inside her.

Fast-forward to today, and you can read all about Parks's journey in her just-released cookbook, BraveTart, which bears the same name as her candid and popular blog. In the book's introduction, Parks's Serious Eats colleague (and Food Lab author), J. Kenji López-Alt, calls her a combo of Betty Crocker, the Keebler Elf, Mr. Wizard and Fannie Farmer. Crack it open, and you'll see why. Parks peels the plastic off the packaged desserts you grew up with and gives them a culinary school education, transforming treats like Fig Newtons, Cracker Jack, animal crackers and, of course, Oreos into modern delights—and you're about to reap the benefits.

At every turn, she lends another trick for achieving the holy grail of a homemade version of a store-bought classic that rivals the original but still retains its spirit. Use club soda for light-as-air Twinkies, she advises, or a winning combo of red wine and raw cocoa powder in red velvet cake for a tender texture and vibrant hue. Or, add a hint of coconut extract into an Oreo recipe to make the result taste shockingly authentic—and use a bikini cookie cutter to get the iconic peanut shape of a Nutter Butter.

Growing up, when Parks visited her grandparents in Western Kentucky, her family would always stop at one particular restaurant. She remembers watching mile-high meringue pies being paraded out to other tables, "seeing the way they'd wobble and being amazed they didn't fall over," like an edible Flubber made of sweet clouds.

"That was the first time I wanted to make a pie," Parks says. To make her lemon meringue pie (see the recipe), you'll pour silky, sweet-tart custard into an all-butter crust, then top it with meringue styled like a middle schooler experimenting with frosted tips. Then, you'll give it a whirl in the tanning bed, courtesy of a hot oven. "I want that sense of awe," she explains, as she lovingly discusses diner pies (you know, the ones next to the giant shrink-wrapped rainbow sprinkle cookies).

This tart classic hasn't changed much from its original version, but we take Parks's advice, to swap the water for coconut water and coconut milk, and add lemongrass for an extra and unusual citrus boost.

Each BraveTart recipe has a backstory, which makes sense when the book has been such a long time coming; she's been actively working on it for six years. A cursory scroll through her bibliography is like leafing through a dissertation on centuries of America's sweet tooth.

For research, Parks bought up three-dollar boxes of 1950s memorabilia from Etsy and eBay—"random things from someone's grandparents' garage." We're talking about everything from anti-Masonic texts to a sorority newsletter and scores of local gazettes from around the country.

"It was like hunting for treasure," Parks says of bringing these lofty treats down to earth. Along the way, she discovered items like an old Nabisco employee manual and behind-the-scenes photos of how Nilla wafers used to be made, back when they were big disks sold in sleeves rather than the one-bite wonders we know today.

She shares a story about that time Jack Kerouac documented his one-day stint as a Girl Scout Cookie elf laborer, which Parks says "read like a chocolate-covered edition of The Jungle." And one about a group of Vassar College girls who helped catapult fudge to fame by stealing ingredients from the cafeteria and making confections in their dorm rooms.

By way of these found histories, the book truly is a collection of American taste and desserts, layering strangers' stories into one giant cake. And it comes at a fitting time, with a delicious fervor growing around nostalgic comfort food (guilty as charged). When it comes to pie, everyone from Bubby's in NYC to Magpie in Philadelphia to Bang Bang Pie in Chicago is throwing it back to the glory days of sugary diner pie joy. Sometimes you need to look back to move forward.

It should come as no surprise that homemade Oreos were the first recipe Parks published for Serious Eats. That mini package of Oreos reminded her how strong taste memories can be. "They have the power to transport us to an earlier time. We don't outgrow them."

  • Start by adding cubed, chilled butter to the dry ingredients.

  • Using your fingers, squeeze the butter into the flour, smashing each cube.

  • Add the water and knead until a dough forms.

  • Transfer the dough to a heavily floured work surface and begin to roll out. Your dough will be soft and delicate.

  • Roll the dough into a 10-by-15-inch rectangle.

  • Take both shorter edges and bring them to the center of the rectangle.

  • Fold the dough at the center seam like a book.

  • Fold once more, bringing the bottom edge to meet the top.

  • Cut the dough in half.

  • Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll into a 14-inch round.

  • Drape the dough over a 9-inch glass pie plate, making the dough flush with the dish.

  • Trim the overhang to 1¼ inches. Then, fold over to make a ¾-inch border of crust.

  • Crimp the edges, then repeat this process with the other piece of dough, reserving for another pie.

  • Chill for 2 hours.

  • Bake at 350° for 1 hour, then let cool completely.

  • Fill with the warm lemon curd and let cool for at least 30 minutes to form a skin at the top.

  • Once the skin has formed, you can continue with the meringue or refrigerate it overnight before moving forward with the recipe.

  • Heat the egg whites and sugar over a water bath until they reach 135°.

  • Pour the hot egg mixture into a stand mixer.

  • Whip until glossy and tripled in volume, about 5 minutes.

  • Immediately scoop the meringue over the pie.

  • Using a spatula, smooth the meringue to cover the entire pie.

  • Using an offset spatula or fork, create a series of peaks with the meringue.

  • Raise the oven to 375° and bake the pie until lightly golden, 20 minutes.

  • Refrigerate until cold (60° on a digital thermometer), 4 hours if the filling was warm or 1 hour if it was cold to start. Slice and enjoy.

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