Normally I would have posted this in the kitchen shrink part of my website but I thought the topic of weepy meringues was such a burning issue that I should feature it as a blog entry. The answer comes from one of my good buddies and an important mentor, Jean Anderson, author of a million cookbooks (no kidding it must be in the 30’s), most recently A Love Affair with Southern Cooking, Harper Collins 2007. When I hosted “Cooking Live,” my live call in show on the food network from 1996 to 2002, Jean was my “red phone,” my answer person. We would often call her in the middle of my show if I was stumped. She is a walking culinary encyclopedia.
After one of my classes in Des Moines, Cesar & Johanna Mendoza e-mailed to remind me that I had promised to ask Jean Anderson about making perfect meringue for a lemon meringue pie. They added this question about the meringue that goes on top of Tres Leches cake. “The issue we always have when making the cake is that the meringue always cracks after we put the cake in the refrigerator to settle down. Do you have any idea what we can do to avoid it?” When I asked Jean Anderson, she said, “I think over beating is the culprit in both cases. The meringue should be beaten only until it peaks very softly, or better yet, falls in billowing mounds.” Many recipes call for beating to stiff peaks and at that stage the meringue breaks down when heated, oozes liquid, and shrinks. Jean also suggests using confectioners’ sugar in the meringue instead of granulated sugar. The little bit of cornstarch in the confectioners’ sugar helps stabilize the meringue. She suggests that with lemon meringue pie, it is also important to spread the meringue on the lemon filling while the filling is hot so it cooks and seals the bottom of the meringue and to spread the meringue until it touches the pie crust at the edge sealing in the heat. With the Tres Leches cake, the filling is usually cool and it is better not to seal the meringue to the side of the dish. In that case, you should run a moistened spatula around the edge of the baking dish to prevent the meringue from sticking and then even if the meringue has been over beaten and shrinks when chilled, it will just pull away from the edge and not split in the center.