Okay, after reading the words "chocolate cream pie" and spotting meringue in the photos, you're probably thinking I've lost my mind. But believe it or not, meringue is the traditional topping for any sort of cream pie—historically defined as any pie filled with a cream pudding, such as butterscotch, coconut, and chocolate.
Perhaps through the power of suggestion or just the hedonistic bent of 20th-century recipes, whipped cream has become a fairly ubiquitous substitute for meringue, but I like to think that the latter has more than history on its side.
Good desserts are all about contrast—that thin layer of brittle burnt sugar atop a crème brûlée or the crunchy graham crackers on either side of a melted marshmallow. Chocolate custard is already dense, rich, creamy, and intense, so what it needs is a dose of something light, lean, foamy, and mild, which is where my Swiss Meringue comes into play.
Made with mellow toasted sugar and aromatic vanilla bean, it's not the hyper-sweet and flavorless meringue most of us know and loathe. It's light and silky but sturdy, so it's neither the fragile foam of a French meringue nor the dense, crème-like consistency of Italian meringue. And hey, if that's not your idea of perfection, I'll turn a blind eye if you want to top it with whipped cream, instead. Just don't say I didn't warn you; this pie is rich.
Nothing about the recipe is difficult, but there are a number of moving parts. The best way to break up the process is to prepare the crust a day in advance, putting the messiest stage behind you. The crust can even be baked off a day early, so when it comes time to make the pie you only have to tackle the custard and the meringue. Of course, it's perfectly feasible to tackle it all in one go, and I've done so on many occasions—just be sure to start early in the day, since both the dough and the finished pie require several hours in the fridge before serving.
To make the filling, start by combining sugar, salt, cornstarch, and cocoa powder in a 3-quart stainless steel pot, whisking to break up any lumps of cocoa. Then, add egg yolks and a splash of milk to form a thick paste. Once you've whisked out the lumps, you incorporate more milk and set it over medium-low heat, stirring until the mixture is steaming hot.
This is a super low-key process—since you're not trying to aerate or agitate the custard, you don't even have to be hypervigilant. The idea is simply to keep the custard in motion as it warms. Once the contents of the pot begin to steam, increase the heat to medium and whisk gently as it thickens. As soon as it starts to bubble, set a timer and hold the custard at a boil for 90 seconds as you whisk. This helps neutralize a starch-dissolving protein found in egg yolks that could otherwise turn the filling soupy over time.
When the timer goes off, strain the custard into a medium bowl, and then stir in chocolate and vanilla. Cover it with a heavy towel to keep it warm while you prepare the Swiss Meringue. Again, this is a fairly relaxed process. There's no need to race the clock and prepare the meringue before the custard cools. The custard does not "cook" the meringue; the meringue cooks itself. A warm-ish custard simply streamlines the baking and cooling process, so you can take your time.
Smooth the chocolate custard into an even layer, then carefully dollop the meringue on top.
Spread it around with the back of a fork; I've found its tines are much better at texturizing the meringue than a spoon, but that's just an aesthetic choice. Whatever the case, work gently to avoid displacing the custard below.
I'm a big fan of old-school swoops and swirls, but feel free to style the meringue however you like. You can even pipe it with a pastry bag and a star tip if you're feeling particularly fancy.
Bake the pie at 375°F until the meringue is golden, with a few darker areas around its peaks. This isn't to cook the meringue (as I said, it's already cooked) but to warm it through and through. In so doing, the air trapped inside will expand, puffing the meringue to even loftier heights. And yeah, it browns up nicely along the way.
What you don't want to do is brown the meringue for a shorter period of time at a higher heat, which causes the surface to crust over faster than the heat can penetrate the heart of the pie. The result is a comparatively dense meringue, the unusual lightness of my technique notwithstanding.
Let the golden pie stand at room temperature for about an hour to make sure all the steam has escaped. Then wrap it loosely in plastic and refrigerate it for three more hours. You can even leave it overnight. Thanks to the nature of my Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Crust and my super-stable Swiss Meringue, you don't have to worry about the pie becoming soggy or weepy over time. If you're eager to dig in, be sure to grab a digital thermometer to make sure it's no warmer than 60°F before you slice it open.
To serve, cut the pie with a wet chef's knife to keep the meringue from sticking, and clean the blade between each slice. When it comes to chocolate, I'm not screwing around, so it doesn't take a big slice to satisfy. Or maybe it does—who am I to judge?