It took years for Rachel Swan to come around to her grandmother's angel pie.
The dessert that flips lemon meringue pie on its head, literally, was Swan's father's favorite. But not hers. "I only have a memory of putting it in my mouth and spitting it out," she said on a recent morning in her south Minneapolis shop, Pie & Mighty. It was a textural thing — the airy crunch of meringue isn't for every kid. "But my dad loved it and it was like this special bond that he had with his mom."
After her dad died in 2010, Swan inherited a copy of her Grandma Lu's recipe, and after years of testing variations, she has managed to perfect — and fall in love with — angel pie. It's become one of her bakery's signature items.
Angel pie, which has a meringue base in place of a traditional crust, is a throwback recipe for a spring gathering, with the bonus that it's gluten-free. With undulating waves of whipped egg whites along the edges, it is dazzling on an Easter dessert table, and is Passover-friendly with a minor substitution.
And the best part? It's not difficult. It takes only a short list of ingredients and a strong mixer. The hardest part is waiting for the meringue to harden in a closed oven (Day 1), and then for the assembled pie to set in the refrigerator (Day 2). However, deftness with a piping bag or a steady hand with an offset spatula are advantages, as sticky uncooked meringue can be a challenge, for some, to spread prettily on a pie plate.
Angel pies are usually filled with a custard or fruit curd, which solidifies in the fridge and allows the delicate meringue to retain its crunchiness beneath. But you could just as easily fill the pie with a big pile of homemade whipped cream streaked with jam and topped with macerated fruit. Or try butterscotch pudding, or chocolate ganache.
The closest culinary comparison is an upside-down lemon meringue pie, and lemon is probably the best place to start when making angel pie.
"It's light, it's ethereal, it's tart, but it's also sweet — it's like all of my favorite things in one dish," said Zoë François, the Minneapolis-based cookbook author, who featured Swan's lemon angel pie on her television show, "Zoë Bakes."
Though its origin isn't totally clear, angel pie's popularity peaked in the United States in the '50s and '60s, just as other somewhat fussy and finicky dishes that involved piping, braiding, layering and other adornments were standards in midcentury kitchens.
A recipe for angel pie appeared in the first publication of "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" in 1950 as a variation on a "schaum torte," which is a traditional Austrian dessert that translates to "foam cake."
It also shares roots with the pavlova, a dessert that, according to legend, was created for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in the 1920s during one of her tours to Australia or New Zealand. The crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside free-form pile of meringue is usually topped with berries and whipped cream. It's known for its poise and beauty, like its namesake. Let loose and smash the whole thing up, and you'll have the traditional English dessert Eton Mess.
Up North, you'll find more relatives of angel pie at a pair of famed pie shops along Hwy. 61. The five-layer chocolate pie at both Betty's Pies and Rustic Inn retain a pastry crust, but fill it with cinnamon meringue underneath a layer of chocolate mousse. (Rustic Inn has three flavors of meringue-crusted angel pies on its menu, too.)
With so many versions of meringue-and-cream desserts out there, it's a wonder to some fans why angel pie remains such an obscure slice of heaven.
"I put it in the category of baked Alaska and icebox cakes, and all of these desserts that are just absolutely delicious and beautiful," François said. "I don't know why they left our kitchen repertoires. But they're coming back."
At Pie & Mighty, Swan can't make enough of her Grandma Lu's Lemon Angel Pie. When she puts it into her shop's weekly rotation, it sells out fast. But since it takes several hours for the meringue to set at a super-low heat, a batch of 30 pies ties up her ovens for an entire day. Portioning them out to get more pie to more people isn't an option, because — as beautiful as an angel pie is — slicing it can get messy.
"I think the reason why this pie fell off the radar is that it takes time and practice, and we don't have that anymore," Swan said.
Fortunately for home bakers, active baking time is minimal, and angel pies are easy to reproduce at home.
And it might just be time for a comeback, with a little help from Swan's Grandma Lu.
"It was a classic of the 1950s," said François, "and I think Rachel will singlehandedly make this an essential dessert in America again."
Grandma Lu's Lemon Angel Pie
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: This is Rachel Swan's version of her grandmother's angel pie recipe, which occasionally appears on the menu at her south Minneapolis bakery, Pie & Mighty. The key to making a meringue crust that doesn't crack is to not open the oven during baking or after. The longer you can leave the oven closed, the better. "Here's the thing with this pie: The most important ingredient, not listed, is time," Swan said. Swan calls her lemon filling "goo." She suggests pushing the filling and the whipped cream all the way in toward the edge of the crust, an act she calls "tuckle the goo." To make the recipe Passover-friendly, replace cream of tartar with lemon juice or vinegar. This recipe must be prepared in advance.
For the meringue crust:
• Coconut oil, for greasing
• 4 egg whites, room temperature
• 1⁄4 tsp. cream of tartar, or 1⁄2 tsp. lemon juice or vinegar (see Note)
• 1 c. sugar
For the lemon filling:
• 4 egg yolks, room temperature
• 1⁄2 c. sugar
• 1/3 c. fresh-squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
For the whipped cream:
• 2 c. heavy whipping cream
• 2 tbsp. sugar
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
• Zest of 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Generously grease a pie plate with coconut oil.
To prepare the meringue crust: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar (or lemon juice or vinegar) and beat on medium-high speed until foamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the sugar and beat until the mixture is stiff and glossy, up to 10 minutes. Spread the meringue onto the pie plate and shape the crust up the sides with a rubber spatula, hollowing the center and making decorative dollops around the edges. (To spread the meringue more evenly, use a piping bag to pipe a spiral around the bottom and pipe rings around the edges of the plate up to the rim. Pipe a decorative rim around the top to look like a crimped edge.) Bake for 1 hour. When the timer goes off, turn off the oven but do not open the door to remove it until the oven has fully cooled — at least one hour and up to overnight.
To prepare the lemon filling: In a small stainless-steel bowl, beat egg yolks, adding the sugar until thick. Add lemon juice and place the bowl over a pot, filled about a quarter of the way with boiling water (double-boiler method). Stir constantly until mixture is thick and mounds slightly when dropped from a spoon, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cover with plastic wrap on the surface of the filling, to prevent a film from forming. Cool completely.
To assemble the pie: Make the whipped cream. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, combine the heavy cream and sugar until thick. Add vanilla.
Take the meringue crust and lightly knock down the inside of the shell, which may have puffed up during baking, making a cavern underneath the top edge. Spread half the whipped cream into the shell, reaching all the way into the sides (aka "tuckle the goo"). Spoon in the lemon filling and smooth it over the whipped cream with a spoon or offset spatula. Some of the filling and cream will mix together.
Put the rest of the whipped cream into a piping bag (or a sandwich bag with the corner snipped off) and pipe the cream around the pie where the meringue shell meets the filling. Sprinkle the lemon zest all over the top of the pie. Refrigerate the pie at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.