Q: Why does my meringue go flat and separate from the crust when it cools?
— Heidi Donabedian, Carmichael
A: You’ll want to use eggs that are at least three to four days old. Separate the eggs when they are cold and leave the whites at room temperature for 30 minutes before whipping them. Make sure no egg yolk goes into the whites. If it does, lift it out with an empty eggshell, not your finger, as the oil on your skin will keep the whites from whipping up. Yolks contain fat, and even a tiny bit of fat or yolk will ruin a meringue.
Use a glass, copper or stainless-steel bowl (not plastic) and make sure all utensils are clean, dry and grease-free. With the mixer set at medium-high speed, start whipping the egg whites. When the whites begin to form soft peaks, you can start adding the sugar (not before). Superfine sugar works better than regular sugar because it dissolves faster. Add very slowly, a couple of spoonfuls at a time, while continuing to beat.
You’ll need a total of ¼ cup of sugar for each egg white. If you use less than 2 tablespoons of sugar per white, your meringue will shrink.
You’ll want to make sure the sugar is dissolved before you finish beating the meringue. Remove a bit of the foam with a spoon and rub it between your fingers. If it feels gritty, you’ll need to keep beating. The meringue is ready when you can hold a spoonful of it upside down and it stays on the spoon.
To keep the meringue from shrinking, make the meringue first, then prepare the pie filling. While the filling is very hot, start spreading the meringue, sealing it completely to the crust; no gaps and no filling showing.
The heat from the filling will cook the bottom of the meringue slightly, making it less likely to shrink.
Humidity can make your meringue feel sticky, go limp or fall flat. So make your meringue on a dry day.
Bake meringue pies at 325 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. Meringue pies last only a couple of days before they start to deteriorate. Store meringue pies under a large bowl at room temperature. If refrigerated, the meringue will weep and bead.
Watson is a Sacramento home economist who has been a nutrition consultant and cooking instructor for nearly 20 years. She is a member of the American Association of Family and Consumer Science. Write: Teri Watson, Taste, The Sacramento Bee, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento 95852. Fax: 916-556-5625. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, phone number and city.