The Infamous Lemon Meringue Pie

It was 1986, the second  full summer my husband and I were dating, and I’d recently learned that one of his favorite pies was lemon meringue. My mother always made a wonderful lemon meringue, with flaky, tender crust, tangy-sweet lemon filling, and a shiny, billowy and perfectly-browned meringue heaped on top. I’d watched her bake all sorts of creations from scratch many times and thought how difficult could it be?

My mother was busy with other cooking and going up and down the cellar stairs with the laundry, so I just went ahead and read her recipe card of instructions as I completed the process of mixing and rolling the pie crust dough. After the first roll-out, it didn’t look right, so I scooped it all into a ball and rolled it out again. Then a third time. I wanted this pie to be perfect for my new boyfriend!

The rest of the pie-making went splendidly. The filling looked good and the meringue top turned out fluffy and pretty. I hovered over the oven as it browned, pulling it out when just the right shade of caramel touched the tips. Into the fridge went the pie, to await the moment of glory after supper at the Homestead that night with my boyfriend in attendance.

When the time came, I was wreathed in smiles, seeing how happy my boyfriend was at the effort I’d gone through to make one of his favorite desserts. We gave him the honors of cutting the first piece of pie. I felt a tingle of apprehension as he cut into the center…and then had to push down pretty hard to cut through (and he was a college football player with plenty of arm muscle to spare). He was still smiling, though, and I tried to keep a brave face – but it all came to a screeching halt when he put the piece of pie on his plate and tried to use his fork to get a bite.

His fork wouldn’t cut through the bottom of the crust.

He paused, a little flustered, and my heart fell. My mother looked at me and whispered, “Did you have any trouble when you were making the crust?”

I shrugged. “Well, I had to roll it out three times to get it just right.”

She started to chuckle. Anyone who has worked with pastry knows that it has to be handled lightly and as little as possible to be tender and flaky. The more it’s handled the tougher it gets. My boyfriend, who had a good sense of humor said, “Well, I can just eat it like this…” and he picked up the slice of pie by the fluted edge, lifting it from the plate and intending to take a bite that way.

Except the pie didn’t shift. The crust was like a rock, preventing the filling or meringue from moving even a fraction. If he’d tried to bite it, he’d probably have broken a tooth.

Everyone burst out laughing at that point, including me. In my quest for perfection, I’d created an inedible crust. But as my boyfriend reassured me, the lemon filling and the meringue tasted good!

Great-Grandma O’Halleran’s Hot Water Pie Crust

Hot water pie crust recipe

Great-Grandma O’Halleran’s Hot Water Pie crust recipe

As you can see from this old recipe index card, I’ve made this pie crust quite a few times. The card is stained with use but only a little worse for wear. The handwriting on it is my dear mother’s, and she copied out this recipe for me from her files, back when I was newly married more than two decades ago.

It’s a different kind of pie crust because unlike most, which use ice water and sometimes butter, this one uses lard (or Crisco, which is what I and my mother have always used) and boiling water. My great-grandmother who was born in Ireland in the 1860’s, Katherine O’Halleran, favored this recipe, and since she lived in my mother’s childhood household and was the primary cook when my mother was a girl in the 1930’s and 1940’s (since her own mother – my Grandma – was away all day working in the cotton mill in Utica, NY), my mother picked it up along the way.

It’s surprisingly easy, adapts to just about any pie, and I never fail to get compliments on the light flakiness of this crust. Except for the very first time I attempted to make it on my own…but that’s a story for another day. 🙂

Here’s the recipe, with instructions for a single or a double crust pie:

Place in a Bowl:

Single Recipe                                                  Double Recipe

1/2 cup lard or Crisco                                     1 1/4 cups lard or Crisco

Pour over it:

1/4 cup boiling water                                      1/2 – 3/4 cups boiling water

Mix the following ingredients together, sifting before measuring (Note: I admit I always skip the sifting part and it doesn’t seem to hurt anything!)

1 1/2 cups flour                                              about 3 1/2 cups flour

1/2 tsps baking powder                                1 1/4 + a little more tsps baking powder

1/2 tsps salt                                                    1 1/4 + a little more tsps salt

Combine the liquid and the sifted ingredients quickly and form into a smooth ball. Roll out.

A few helpful hints: Don’t overwork the dough. Roll out once, on a well-floured surface, with a well-floured rolling pin. I like to gently fold the crust in half to transfer it to the pie dish, but if you’re using waxed paper under the dough when you roll out, you can just carefully flip it over into the pie dish. Cut off excess before crimping the edged with your thumbs. A finished double-crust should look like these two pies:


Two double-crust pies sprinkled with sugar