I WROTE THIS STORY ABOUT CHIEF INSPECTOR GAMACHE, THE BELOVED CHARACTER IN MY FRIEND LOUISE PENNY’S SERIES OF NOVELS. WHILE MOST OF GAMACHE’S WORK IS DONE IN CANADA, AND WHILE THE SETTING IS OFTEN THREE PINES, A PLACE EVERYONE WHO READS THE BOOKS WANTS TO GO TO, HER LAST BOOK, “ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE,” IS SET IN PARIS, WHICH IS WHERE LOUISE AND I MET. SINCE LEMON MERINGUE TURNS UP IN ALL OF LOUISE’S NOVELS, I DECIDED TO CREATE A LEMON MERINGUE DESSERT, A COOKIE, FOR GAMACHE.
This story and the cookie recipe first appeared in the New York Times Magazine. The photograph is by Heami Lee; food styling by Maggie Ruggiero; and prop styling by Rebecca Bartoshesky.
IF, LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHER READERS, YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH LOUISE PENNY’S NOVELS AND INSPECTOR GAMACHE, REJOICE: THE 17TH BOOK IN THE SERIES, “THE MADNESS OF CROWDS,” WILL BE OUT AUGUST 24, 2021 (AND IS AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER NOW).
At the start of the pandemic, as we all made plans to stay put, a friend said, “How I wish I could be in Three Pines.” I understood. Three Pines is a small village in Quebec with a good boulangerie; a bookstore that smells like tea and flowers; a bistro with an excellent chef; and a community of fascinating eccentrics. There’s the poet Ruth, who often curses and just as often says something so profound you want to tuck the line away in your pocket. There’s Clara, the brilliant artist whose dinners last into the night because the conversations are so good. And there’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, whose job is to investigate murders but whose remarkable gift is to understand people. I’m obsessed with him — with his love of literature, his quiet intelligence and his after-shave, some combination of sandalwood and rosewater. It doesn’t hurt that he likes a black licorice pipe (my mother’s favorite candy) with his café au lait. With his Scotch too.
I’m grown-up enough to know that a place this idyllic can only be mythical, and this one was imagined by Louise Penny, who has written 16 Gamache books, not one of which I’d read until a few days before she came to my apartment in Paris two years ago. She was in town to research what would be her latest novel, “All the Devils Are Here,” and a friend suggested we meet. In preparation, I baked gougères. I also made a dinner reservation for us at Juveniles, one of my favorite places, and scrambled to read her first novel. By the time she knocked on my door, I couldn’t decide whether to hug her and thank her for the pleasure the book had given me, or damn her for making me miss one stop on the No. 86 bus, two on the No. 10 Métro line and a few hours of sleep the night I wouldn’t stop reading until I got to the end. (I decided on a hug.)
Since then, I’ve read through her books, all of which include family, mystery, murder, knotty moral dilemmas, goodness lost, goodness found, dogs, a duck, children, very old people and food, lots of it. In “Devils,” the food is French, and it’s served in Paris. Gamache and his family have dinner at Juveniles — he loves the rice pudding with caramel sauce as much as Louise and I did. There’s a meal at my neighborhood bistro, Le Comptoir, where Louise, who has since become a friend, and I had lunch, and a piece of cake that a Left Bank building concierge gives to Gamache for his wife (too bad its delivery is delayed by murder). There’s a lemon tart eaten in the garden of the Musée Rodin and, later, a lemon meringue pie.
There has been a lemon meringue pie in each of Louise’s books, starting with her second, “A Fatal Grace,” where a fisherman in a diner finishes a slice and then looks toward Gamache, his eyes shining with compassion. Ever since, the pie, which was Louise’s husband’s favorite, “has come to symbolize the divine,” she told me. It’s now a touchstone for her readers as well as for Gamache.
“Devils” ends with Gamache home again in Three Pines, enjoying a slice of lemon meringue pie at the Bistro. As I closed the book a couple of months ago, I felt as if I, too, had returned home, and I set about doing something I’d never done — I baked lemon meringue for an imaginary friend, Armand Gamache.
I wanted to make him something special, something different from the pie at the Bistro. I toyed with the idea of a French tarte au citron, an echo of the book’s opening. In the end, though, I made a cookie, a beautiful, surprising cookie that tips French but shrugs at tradition.
Like a classic lemon meringue pie, it has three parts. The base is a vanilla sablé, a French shortbread cookie with a fine, crumbly texture — this one’s thick, so it’s also a little chewy at the center. The flavor is classic, but the way I bake the cookies isn’t: The dough is shaped into logs, chilled, cut into pucks and then popped into muffin tins, so they all bake to the same size and are golden on the bottom and around their straight sides. Because they’re well baked, the butter tastes nutty and the sugar caramelizes a bit. The middle layer is lemon curd, homemade or store-bought, but puckery — it’s got to be sharp. And the top is the meringue, not soft and billowy as it is in a pie, but crunchy. The meringue is quick to make and slow to bake; what you’re actually doing is drying it, so that you can cut it into pieces.
The three elements can be made ahead — best if they are — then put together at the last minute. Spoon the curd over the cookies, then scatter over the bits of meringue any way you want. Be neat or go for the look I like best, loosey-goosey. Eat them the minute they’re ready, so that you get the crumbly cookie, the velvety curd and the crack of the meringue. My friend Gamache might or might not find these divine — that’s a lot to wish for — but I love imagining us together in front of the Bistro’s fireplace with mugs of dark coffee and a plate of the cookies between us. Maybe he’d find that heavenly. I would.
A LEMON MERINGUE COOKIE FOR CHIEF INSPECTOR GAMACHE
Like their inspiration, lemon meringue pie, these cookies have three elements. They’re built on simple, slice-and-bake French shortbread cookies, rich, buttery and flavored with vanilla. The shortbread base is almost classic, except that the cookies are baked in muffin tins, so they’re straight-sided and deeply golden brown. The “filling” is lemon curd, and the topping is crunchy bits of meringue. You get crumbly, velvety and crackly, sweet and tart in every bite. These cookies were created for an imaginary friend, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the hero of 16 Louise Penny novels, and a man who considers lemon meringue divine.
Makes 24 cookies
FOR THE MERINGUE:
- ¼ cup/50 grams granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
- 1 large egg white, at room temperature
- ¼ teaspoon distilled vinegar (or lemon juice)
- Pinch of fine sea salt
FOR THE SHORTBREAD:
- 1 cup/225 grams unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into chunks and brought to room temperature, plus more for greasing the muffin tin
- ½ cup/100 grams granulated sugar
- ¼ cup/30 grams confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons/270 grams all-purpose flour
- About 1/3 cup/80 grams lemon curd store-bought or homemade
- Make the meringue: Heat oven to 250 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, stir together both sugars.
- Working with an electric mixer, beat the egg white, vinegar and salt on medium-high speed until the mixture forms soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar mixture 1 tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition. Once the sugar is incorporated, beat 2 minutes more; you’ll have stiff, glossy, white peaks. Put the meringue on the baking sheet and spread it 1/4-inch thick. (It will cover only a small part of the sheet.)
- Bake the meringue undisturbed for 35 minutes. Turn off the heat, prop open the oven door and let it dry for 1 hour. When you’re ready to use it, chop it into pieces about the size of chocolate chips. Precision doesn’t matter.
- Make the shortbread: Working with a mixer (use the paddle if it’s a stand mixer), beat the butter, both sugars and the salt on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until smooth but not fluffy. On low speed, beat in the yolks, one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Add the flour in three additions, mixing on low until the dough comes together in large clumps. Turn out the dough and knead it into a ball. Cut the ball in half.
- Shape each half into a 6-inch log. Wrap it and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (You could also freeze it for up to 2 months; leave it on the counter for 1 hour before baking.)
- When you’re ready to bake the cookies, heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 1 or 2 muffin tins with butter (or nonstick baking spray).
- Slice each log into 12 rounds (each 1/2-inch thick); drop one into each muffin cup. (If you don’t have enough tins, you can work in batches.)
- Bake for 21 to 23 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown around the rims. Transfer the tin(s) to a rack, cool for 5 minutes, then lift the cookies out and onto racks; cool to room temperature.
- Just before serving, top each cookie with lemon curd, then top with ample chunks of meringue, pressing them into the curd. The meringue will keep in a cool, dry place for a few days, and the cookies can be kept at room temperature for about 3 days. But once you top the cookies, they’re best eaten soon after.