Ella and Mari’s bake off
Mari Kanagy, Publishing Editor & Eleanor Yarkin, Online Editor
Through these difficult and uncertain times, two particular best friends have become more distant than ever before. The pair has remained not a mere six feet apart, but rather separated by hundreds of miles: Mari has been quarantined at her home on Vashon, whereas Ella is spending these months locked away with her sister in San Luis Obispo, California. The one thing keeping them connected, aside from the daily Snapchat updates and bi-daily phone calls, is their love of baking and a little friendly competition.
This issue, Mari and Ella both made one of their longtime favorite desserts: Lemon custard pie. Because the distance between them impeded on their ability to properly judge each other’s work — and therefore fairly decide who baked the better pie — the two had to rely on images and honest descriptions of the baking process and final product to determine the winner.
This process started with boredom, as most activities do when you’re trapped at home with nothing to do. First, I pulled out “The Joy of Cooking” book from the shelf — choosing a recipe from any other source would be a mistake — and searched for lemon pie and a graham cracker crust recipes.
I opted for graham cracker crust because it goes well with the citrus filling, and it’s also quite easy to make. I combined the crushed graham cracker, sugar, and melted butter to make a sweet, crumbly mixture. When pressing the mixture into the pie pan, I made my first mistake, which I would only realize was problematic later on.
Next came the custard making. The recipe is surprisingly simple: combine each of the ingredients into a saucepan over medium heat until the custard thickens. The custard remained quite watery for several minutes of heating, causing me to triple check the recipe to ensure I’d added the correct amount of liquid ingredients.
My fears of making a thin custard trickled away as it finally began to thicken. Soon, the filling was dense and bubbling, with small eruptions rising up from the bottom of the pan and popping to the surface like lovely little lemony volcanoes. I let the custard firm up some more over the stove before pouring it into the pie pan to set.
I chose to ignore the final step of the recipe, which said something about covering the pie with cling film — or was it parchment paper? — immediately after pouring in the custard. Forgoing this step was my second mistake.
That evening, I added whipped cream, the final touch, to each slice of pie. In cutting and dishing out the slices, I realized the graham cracker mixture was too thin, so the crust on the side didn’t stay intact during the transfer from pie pan to plate. In tasting the pie, however, the too-thin crust was ignorable, because the flavor was such a triumph. The sharp lemon custard paired perfectly with the sweetness from the whipped cream and the graham cracker. My only other complaint was with a slightly rubbery film on the top of the custard, which likely formed in the absence of cling film on the pie’s surface.
Overall rating: 8/10
Moving into my sister’s apartment in San Luis Obispo came with its ups and downs, the downs being an oven that doesn’t get hot and no pie pans or rolling pins. Naturally these challenges lead me to crave pie, specifically lemon meringue pie. While Mari opted for the simpler cream topping, I decided to put in the extra work and whip up some egg whites for what “The Joy of Cooking” describes as a “delicate affair” to top my custard.
The filling of the pie came from one of the ups of living in San Luis Obispo: access to fresh lemons growing in every other residential yard. The ones I used were Meyer lemons growing about a half mile from my apartment. Meyer lemons are more sweet and flowery than the typical Lisbon or Eureka lemon, which allowed me to cut down on sugar and infuse the custard with a fragrant zest.
My main challenge was the crust of the pie. I made an oil crust, a staple in my family, which is thinner and lighter than a traditional butter crust. Because my sister’s apartment was lacking pie tins, I had to improvise a little. I sorted through cabinets of tupperware before coming across a cast iron pan suitable for the task. Lacking the convenience of a rolling pin, I hand pressed the crust along the pan until it was nearly even across the bottom and up the sides.
With the crust pre baking, I turned to the pie filling. Using egg yolks in the custard and an equal number of egg whites for the topping is something beautiful to me. The yolks and whites are each transformed into something drastically different but pair beautifully with each other and nothing goes to waste. That being said, I messed up on the meringue. Not paying close enough attention, I overbeat the whites until they were dry and beyond the point of soft peaks that I had been hoping to dome over my pie. They worked though and starting with new egg whites would upset the yin yang balance of the dish by producing extra yolks.
I was careful to watch my pie in the oven, allowing extra time to prebake the crust due to the lower temperature and sacrificing some browning of the top to avoid drying out the meringue. All in all, the pie could’ve been prettier but turned out delicious.
Overall rating: 8/10