I’m pretty serious about birthdays. If it’s your birthday, you get to request whatever treat you want. Past productions include triple decker layer cakes, deep dish apple pie and creme brûlée. For this birthday, Ron requested an old-fashioned Flapper Pie. I imagine you’re either nodding fondly…or you’re thinking, ‘what is a Flapper Pie?’
If you know about Flapper Pie, I would guess you grew up in western Canada in a certain period of time. Flapper Pie made a regular appearance at all Fall Suppers and most Prairie cafes when I was a kid.
It’s a fine enough pie and people love it, but it’s a messy one. The graham cracker crust is soft and falls apart. It always drove me crazy because the meringue beads up and then starts to weep, turning your pie into an unattractive (but still tasty) puddle. I hate that!
This pie was overdue for a makeover. I wanted a graham wafer crust that held together, a meringue that stayed picture perfect (no beading and no weeping) and a filling that had some layers of flavour.
For help with the meringue I went to Shirley Corriher’s CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking (1997). It was a gift from my friend Shawna and I remember Shawna explaining that Julia Child would call Shirley when she had trouble with a recipe. The book jacket describes Shirley as a “culinary food sleuth”. My kinda dame.
I also pulled out America’s Test Kitchen The New Best Recipe (2004). The experts at ATK noted glumly that “most cookbooks don’t even attempt to deal with the problems of meringue…assuming, apparently, that there is no way around the flaws.”
ATK and Ms. Corriher agree on the problems and how they can be fixed. Shirley wrote about 900 pithy words on the subject of meringue. Here are the highlights. (If you don’t care why meringue fails and you just want to get whipping some egg whites, stop reading now and skip to the recipe. If you dive into cookbooks like they are mystery novels, keep reading and we’ll unravel the problem of weepy meringue.)
- The weeping underneath the meringue is due to undercooking – undercooked egg whites breakdown and return to their liquid state. To fix that, the meringue must be spread on hot filling. I also followed Shirley’s directions and made the meringue before I made the filling. That way, as soon as you put the hot filling in the pie shell, the meringue is ready to go on top.
- The beading on top of the meringue is due to overcooking – when overcooked the proteins in egg whites coagulate and squeeze out moisture which shows up as beads of moisture on the meringue. (I always thought it was humidity. Like there’s humidity in Saskatchewan. Ha! Once in a blue moon.) To fix the beading, the pie must be baked in a relatively cool oven, about 325 degrees.
- To stabilize the egg whites, you add cornstarch. Yes! That’s the secret! And, because the sugar in the meringue ties up all the water, you have to heat the cornstarch with water before adding it to the egg whites. Don’t try to just stir in the cornstarch – you’ll get lumps!
- A little cream of tartar also helps to stabilize the meringue.
I let the pie sit a whole day before taking the final photos so I would know for sure that this technique worked. I should have known better than to doubt Shirley or America’s Test Kitchen. I even hid a piece of pie in the fridge so I could inspect it on day two. The meringue had become a little sticky by then, but still no beading and no weeping.
For the vanilla custard filling, I wanted to deepen the favour. This recipe uses a vanilla bean and two teaspoons of brandy. In place of the vanilla bean, you could stir in two teaspoons of vanilla once you take the filling off the heat.
I was impatient and starting slicing the pie after only two hours of chilling. The meringue was nice and steady, but the filling was a little wobbly. Next time I’d leave it for four hours at least. The meringue was still dry and perfect on day two. To keep the meringue from sticking to the knife, I sprayed the knife with Pam and washed it between every slice.
When my grandma taught me how to make pie crust we used a recipe called ‘Never-Fail Pie Crust’ on the back of the Tenderflake package. So, in honour of vintage recipes, I’m calling this the Never Fail Flapper Pie.
If you make it and you have any problems let me know and I’ll see if Shirley or ATK has some advice!
- Graham Crust
- 170g (6 ounces) graham crumbs (about 10 crackers)
- 25 g (1 ounce or 3 tablespoons) sugar
- 60 ml (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and warm
- Meringue Topping
- 15 ml (1 tablespoon) cornstarch
- 118 ml (1/3 cup) water, cool
- ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 140 g (5 ounces, ½ cup + 3 tablespoons) sugar
- 5 ml (1 teaspoon) vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 5 large egg whites
- 125 g (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons, 4⅞ ounces) sugar
- 28 g (1/4 cup, 1 ounce) cornstarch
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 5 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 473 ml (2 cups) 2 percent or whole milk
- 118 ml (1/2 cup) evaporated milk
- ½ vanilla bean, about 3 inches long, split lengthwise, or two teaspoons vanilla extract
- 60 ml (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 10 ml (2 teaspoons) brandy
- Make the crust: Adjust the oven rack to the middle and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Stir together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter until well combined. Press firmly into a 9 inch pie plate. Use the bottom of a small measuring cup and your fingers to gently flatten the the rim of crumbs. Bake the crust until it is fragrant and beginning to brown, about 15 to 18 minutes. Cool the crust. Leave the oven at 325 degrees.
- Make the meringue: Mix the cornstarch with the water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and whisk as it thickens. When it starts to simmer and turns translucent, remove from the heat.
- Stir together the sugar and cream of tartar in a small bowl. In another bowl (Shirley recommends stainless steel) beat the egg whites and vanilla until frothy. Beat in the sugar mixture, one tablespoon at a time, until the mixture forms soft peaks. Add the cornstarch mixture one tablespoon at a time. beat the meringue to stiff peaks, then set it aside while you make the filling.
- Make the filling: Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and salt together in a medium saucepan. Add the yolks and then immediately but gradually whisk in the milk and evaporated milk. Drop in the vanilla bean, if using. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. The mixture will thicken and begin to simmer, 8 to 10 minutes. Once the filling simmers, continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute longer. Remove from heat. Whisk in the butter, vanilla extract (if using) and brandy. Remove the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and whisk them back into the filling.
- Pour the hot filling into the prepared crust. Immediately spread the meringue around the edge and then the centre of the pie. Push the meringue right to the edge of the crust so it's attached there and doesn't shrink away during baking. Use the spatula or the back of a spoon to create some pretty peaks. Bake the pie until the meringue is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool. Then chill the pie for four or more hours.
As Shirley says, the meringue will wait happily without getting dry. But don't beat it a second time before you spread it on the filling. I did that and it made the peaks softer than I wanted them to be.
It will be tempting to try to cut back on the sugar, but don't. Two tablespoons of sugar per egg white creates a firm meringue. Shirley is firm on this point.
Cool the pie for four or five hours in the fridge before slicing it.
I liked this pie best the first day, but I kept it for two days in the fridge (by hiding it of course.)
The meringue recipe is from the 1997 edition of Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher. The crust and filling recipes are from the 2004 edition of The New Best Recipe by America’s Test Kitchen.