Baking challenge: my my, miss strawberry meringue pie

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: a meringue pie.

During Wimbledon, it really gets crazy…and we eat strawberries and cream and root for our favourite tennis players. My boyfriend loves Roger Federer, and who can blame him? A beautiful man who plays a beautiful game. A man who can rock a cardigan and still look like a hero.

Who could blame a man-crush? - Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Who could blame a man-crush? – Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m always behind Andy Murray, which can be hard to justify since he doesn’t…make a habit of winning finals. For me, Murray is like an intrepid and determined schoolchild who works incredibly hard to achieve his ambitions and to reach the upper echelons, while Novak Djokovich and Federer are like the cooler kids who do everything flawlessly while also dressing really well and dating the hot cheerleaders and make it look easy. Yes, they may be fantastic, but who has more heart, eh?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is when personal psychology meets national sporting events. Because, let’s get real, Djokovich and Federer train incredibly hard too. But the more elegantly they play, the more I stubbornly root for Murray. (Though a part of me knows that only in tennis could you be ranked world number 3 and still be seen as a natural underdog). There is something elatable about that tenacity.

I’m not even British.

Right, back to baking, since this is, after all, a food blog. But it’s a food blog where baking and tennis intersected, be it ever so briefly. When I was thinking up what kind of meringue pie to back for the old baking challenge, I kept thinking that what I really wanted to make was an homage to the classic accompaniment to the Wimbledon Championships, strawberries and cream (it sounds really random now because I’m writing this up months after the event, but I baked it to serve at a Wimbledon Men’s Finals viewing party).

Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling
Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling. A tennis championship classic and baking intersected here

Well, it’s a classic for the viewers in the stands and at home – I doubt the players themselves are wolfing down sugary fruit and dairy once they return to their…tents/hotel rooms/wherever the hell they sleep. I mean, Djokovich doesn’t even eat gluten! Or tomatoes! Gluten and tomatoes – for the weak. Wimbledon grass – for the strong.

TENNIS TALK ENDS HERE

So, strawberry pie it was, with a thick, marshmallowy layer of slightly sticky meringue. The meringue I made was blasted with a blowtorch, which gives it an amazing toasted, scorched flavour. In fact I blasted every mouthful with the torch to ensure my portions of meringue were as toasted as they could get. Divine. A torch gives much more control than a grill – especially my grill, which is more smoke than heat.

A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue - a match made in heaven
A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue – a match made in heaven

I thought I’d made up strawberry meringue pie, as I’d never seen nor heard of it before, but no – people had gotten there before me. I contemplated making up my own recipe but opted for one from the enviably gorgeous Sift and Whisk blog. Blog envy: I have it. The photography, the lighting and styling – all beautiful. I’m more of a ‘throw on a plate, photograph for 30 seconds under murky yellow overhead light, eat dinner, wonder why photo isn’t all beautiful’.

This pie is filled with both fresh strawberries and a fresh strawberry filling thickened with tapioca. The recipe calls for the tapioca pearls to be ground and, although I tried using my mini food processor for this, as directed, it’s difficult for the blades to grind down such a tiny amount, and I’d recommend pounding with a mortar and pestle instead. I struggled to find tapioca pearls in standard supermarkets and ended up buying a bag from an Indian corner shop, where, predictably, they had multiple sizes of pearls and I came away with enough tapioca for the rest of my life and change from £1.00.

The recipe also calls for 1.25kg strawberries, and this was far, far too much when I made it. Since you both place cut strawberries onto the pie and pour over a strawberry puree filling, it really is much better to go by eye; once you have covered the circumference of your tart shell with the hulled berries, you’re done. I used slightly less than a kilo of strawberries in total, for both puree and whole fruit.

Finally: this is not a bake, slice and serve pie; it really benefits from lengthy and patient chilling at each stage so that the filling can set. Perfect for a make-ahead dinner party, less for a quickly dashed-off dessert to present to people who’ve just dropped by (for that category of visitor, make scones!). If you serve it soon after baking and assembly, the pie will taste nice but be decidedly leaky/sloppy.

Strawberry meringue pie
Recipe from Sift and Whisk, with my amendments (mostly making it suitable for the UK), notes and instructions

In addition to the ingredients below, you will also need a loose-bottomed tart tin, 23cm in diameter and ideally a couple of centimetres deep, a kitchen blow torch, and a sugar/candy/jam thermometer. (And a pastry brush. But I feel like that’s a more standard piece of kitchen equipment).

For the pastry

  • 160g plain flour
  • 80g cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 2-3 TBS cold water
  • a little bit of egg white, for brushing
  1. Butter a 23cm, fairly deep loose-bottomed tart tin. Roll the pastry out to a 27cm circle (if your tin is deep, otherwise you can make it a little smaller), or a little larger or smaller depending on what looks right for your tart tin. Lift the pastry up (with your rolling pin is easiest) and drape it into the tin. Press it in gently. Trim the edges so that you have a small overhang and tuck it under (pastry usually shrinks as it cooks and this means that it will still fit the tart tin). Using a fork, poke holes in the bottom of the crust. Chill in the fridge for at least half an hour (the original recipe suggests chilling in the freezer, but I don’t have one, and it was fine).
  2. Preheat the oven to 200C. Line the pastry with baking paper. My trick for this is to measure out your baking paper and then crumple it thoroughly. Softened and wrinkled, it will be easier to work into the curves of the pastry shell than a crisp sheet. Fill the crust with ceramic pastry beads (and I really think these are a good investment if you make a lot of pastry. I used to use dried beans. Ceramic ones are about a thousand times better).
  3. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully remove the baking paper and ceramic baking beads. Return the pastry to the oven and bake for 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven and take your little big of egg white; brush this over the base using a pastry brush. Return the uncovered pastry to the oven and bake 5 minutes longer; it should be golden brown. The egg white will bake and act as a sealant, preventing the wet filling from causing the base to go soggy. You may want to bake for an additional 5 minutes if your pastry is still looking a little pale (it will not be baked further) but be careful not to burn it. Let the pastry sit in the tin for 10-15 minutes, then carefully ease the tin away and allow the pastry to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the filling

  • 900-odd grams strawberries, hulled, divided (see my notes above on the amount of strawberries you will need)
  • 12 grams granulated tapioca (I used a small pearl size)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 100g granulated sugar
  1. Take about 500g of the hulled strawberries and purée them. This is done most quickly in a food processor or blender, but if you don’t have any suitable equipment you could mash them with a fork and then push them through a metal sieve with a wooden spoon. This is hard work, though. Add the vanilla extract and sugar. Blend until fully puréed.
    Take the granulated tapioca and pound it in a pestle and mortar so that it becomes more powdery. Add to the strawberry purée and mix to combine.
  2. Transfer the purée to a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to simmer. Stirring frequently, cook for 3-4 minutes, until the colour has deepened slightly and the mixture is thickened (to test: dip a wooden spoon in the purée before cooking and assess how it drips off the back of the spoon. Once cooked, dip the spoon into the mixture again; the purée should be less runny and you might be able to draw through the purée on the back of the spoon).
  3. Take the remaining hulled strawberries and place, cut side down, in concentric circles onto the cooled pastry crust, starting from the outside in. Carefully pour the ever-so-slightly cooled purée mixture over the berries; the tips will stick through the purée and some of the strawberries may make a break for freedom and start floating. This is okay! Chill in the fridge for at least one hour, and preferably more.

For the marshmallow-meringue topping

  • 2½ teaspoons unflavoured powdered gelatine
  • 60ml plus 80ml cold water, divided
  • 105g glucose syrup (the kind in a tube)
  • 100 grams granulated sugar
  • 3 large egg whites, at room temperature (I used the ones from a carton, which worked fine)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Start making the topping when the tart has had its hour or more of chilling time, as noted in the ‘Filling’ section
  2. In a small bowl, mix the gelatine and 60ml cold water. Let rest for at least 5 minutes so the gelatine blooms and absorbs the water.
  3. Combine remaining 80ml water, glucose syrup and sugar in a small saucepan. Place the egg whites in a large bowl. If you are lucky enough to have a stand mixer, place the egg whites in the bowl of that, but I am proof you can make this recipe with a handheld mixer.
  4. Cook the syrup over a medium heat, checking the temperature with a sugar thermometer as it cooks. When it reaches 100C (just under the ‘Jam’ marking on my thermometer), start mixing the egg whites using your stand or handheld mixer on a low speed. Beat the eggs until frothy and the syrup has come to 118C (or ‘soft ball’, which may be marked on your thermometer). If the eggs become frothy before the syrup reaches the soft ball stage, just stop beating.
  5. Once the sugar syrup has reached 118C, remove the syrup from the heat and whisk into the egg white mixture by hand, whisking as quickly as you can. Try to pour the syrup directly into the egg whites, avoiding getting the syrup on the whisk wires or the sides of the bowl, as this will cause it to solidify. Once all of the sugar syrup has been beaten into the bowl, take your electric mixer and start beating the egg and sugar mixture on high.
  6. Scrape the solidified gelatine into the saucepan you used for the syrup (no need to wash it up between uses) and melt it over a gentle heat. Slowly pour the melted gelatine into the egg whites (if you are using a handheld mixer, eight extra hands or a willing friend or partner are VERY USEFUL for this recipe).
  7. Add the vanilla extract. Keep beating on a high speed setting until the mixture is cooled to room temperature and holds its shape – about ten minutes or more with a handheld mixer and probably about half that with a super-powerful standing mixer.
  8. Using a spatula, dollop the meringue mixture over the chilled pie filling, staying within the confines of the crust. You can swirl the meringue into pretty patterns as you like; I more or less let it dollop where it lay.
  9. Chill the meringue-topped pie, uncovered, for at least an hour in the fridge before serving
  10. Just before serving, whip out your kitchen blow torch and lightly char the meringue topping. This is endlessly fun!
  11. Serve yourself a slice and lie back, slightly exhausted by the effort.
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