"It's just a bit weepy," says Brooke Erceg as she coos over a lemon meringue.
Tiny brown pearls of liquid sugar slide down the peaks of snow-white meringue as it wiggles, elevated at least 4 inches from the lemon custard pooled into the crust. Erceg settles her pie onto a table at Cup A Joe in Hillsborough.
"The first couple of pies were terrible!" Erceg exclaims. "They tasted good, but they weeped a lot. They cried overnight. Six years from now I won't have any weeping. The first few years, they were just these big tears."
Pie really is her baby. She has revived a baking tradition that was handed down to her by her late grandmother, Pauline Erceg.
"She made the best meringue I have ever seen," Erceg wrote in an email. "I still don't know how she did it. She had a recipe book, but her secrets went with her when she passed away. In a way, I think she wanted me to figure them out on my own. Just like she did. One pie at a time."
Pauline, the daughter of Czech immigrants, was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The city is the home of the National Czech and Slovak Museum, and Pauline grew up surrounded by a community bound by tradition, especially in the kitchen. Women would gather socially to prepare festival foods, like Koláče, a sweet roll made with poppy seeds. At home, Pauline experimented with baking and perfected many pies, including Erceg's favorite, a rhubarb custard.
Erceg remembers whipping up that one, but she croons over her grandmother's meringue.
"It was the pie that got me into baking," Erceg says.
The first time she attempted her own version, it did more than just weep. It collapsed. But she kept at it, making an estimated five dozen in the past seven years. Her practice has paid off. The fork takes a sharp dive like a ski jump, clinging onto a bite almost 6 inches high. A delicately flavored, airy meringue complements the dense, tangy lemon custard. Her crust is near-perfect, a recipe she concocted herself.
Erceg owns Cup A Joe with her husband, Ryan Creery. Her baking partner is Blair Ackiss.
"I really feel like a pie like this makes people happy," Erceg says. "One lady, who comes in here often, said it was the best meringue she's ever had. Before that, I knew her by her drink. I had only heard her ever say 'four-shot Americano.'"
The recipe below is tweaked.
"I am going to omit a few parts to the recipe, just so my secret doesn't get out," Erceg wrote. "Some of my tricks are going to the grave with me. Just like my grandma did with her recipes."
Feeds 6 to 8 people
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Bake an unfilled pie shell (also known as blind baking) for 15 minutes or buy a prebaked crust.
1 1/4 cup sugar
6 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
1 3/4 cup water
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4 egg yolks
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tsp. lemon zest
In a saucepan, combine everything except the lemon zest and stir until full boil. Allow mixture to simmer for a few seconds. Don't burn. Add 2 teaspoons lemon zest to the mixture and pour into baked pie crust.
Lower heat in oven to 350 degrees.
Act quickly to make meringue. All ingredients should be at room temperature.
Also the filling should be piping hot when you add meringue.
4 egg whites
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 cup superfine white sugar
In a mixer with wire attachment, mix egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar.
Increase speed to high and slowly add superfine sugar. Mix until stiff and smooth. Tilt the bowl to see if the mixture moves. If it does, continue to beat.
Add meringue to the outer crust of the pie. Making sure the meringue touches the crust. Add the rest of the meringue to the middle and smooth out the edges.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. But be careful not to burn the meringue. Rotate the pie every 5 minutes to get an even color. Once a light brown, remove pie from oven and let cool on a wire rack. Once cool, refrigerate.
Lemon meringue is best served the next day.