With the passing of Memorial Day came a swift–if not entirely unpredictable–craving for sugar. Coupled with the knowledge that I had four or five lemons which were on the precipice of going bad, I knew there could only be one delightful conclusion: lemon dessert.
While most of us are familiar with lemon bars and lemon meringue pie, perhaps not all of us have had the great pleasure of sinking our teeth into these beauties. Gooey, sticky, lemony, and slightly tart, these bars make an excellent BBQ dessert. While they are fun to share, I ate nearly an entire pan to myself over the course of five days before finally demanding that my boyfriend take them away to share.
Y’know, for science. So for the record, they keep surprisingly well in the fridge.
While one could hypothetically eat these pie bars with ones’ hands (and I’ve definitely stuffed a bite-sized morsel into my mouth while running out the door on my way to work) they are an INCREDIBLY sticky mess and are best eaten with a plate and a fork. This way, you know how to prepare for that potluck dessert you were puzzling over. (Gatherings are beginning to happen again, thank everything good.)
Another bonus of finding this winner of a recipe? Trying my hand at another kind of meringue. This recipe calls for Swiss meringue in order to add a silky smooth finish to your lemon pie bars.
Different Kinds of Meringue
There are three basic kinds of meringue. Chances are, you’ve been exposed to them at some point in your life–maybe even eaten and enjoyed them–without knowing just what they are. From meringue cookies to pie toppings to Baked Alaska, mastering meringue is a pivotal step for any baker or home cook.
French meringue is created by whipping egg whites until soft peaks form, then gradually adding sugar while beating until firm peaks appear. For this process, it is best to use fine sugar or confectioner’s sugar for easier absorption and maximum dissolvability. This particular kind of meringue is often folded into desserts like Julia Child’s chocolate mousse in order to create a fluffy, airy quality.
While this touted as the most stable of the three meringues, it can also be the trickiest to get right. It is undoubtedly the least forgiving of the meringues, but the results are versatile and have been used in everything from macarons to buttercream. First, egg whites are beaten until soft peaks form. Then, sugar syrup (simple syrup) is heated to 236°F-240°F. Gradually, the syrup is added to beaten egg whites as you continue to whisk. When all the sugar is incorporated, you will have glossy, firm peaks that will set quickly unless incorporated into another ingredient.
For this meringue, sugar and egg whites are whisked together over a simmering pot of water until they are very warm to the touch. The heated mixture is then beaten until smooth, firm, glossy peaks form. Adding the sugar to the egg whites in this way makes for a less voluminous result, but improves the overall texture, especially when compared to French meringue. (Hint: THIS is the meringue used for lemon meringue pie!)
Ways to Use Meringue
- Fruit pavlovas, like this berry rendition from Natasha’s Kitchen
- Baked Alaska
- Julia Child’s perfect chocolate mousse
- Food and Wine’s raspberry macarons
- Italian meringue cake (called “meringata”)
- Preppy Kitchen’s meringue buttercream
- Rosewater cardamom meringue cookies
- This eye-catching zebra icebox cake
One of the great qualities of meringue is that it is essentially sticky, edible play-dough; once it’s met with time and/or heat, it holds its shape forever. Torch your meringue when you want it to set, and you’ve made an edible creation. Because of this aspect of meringues, they make a fun addition to nearly any dessert. Improvise, and have fun!
Okay, Now You’re Ready To Play With Meringue
Roll up your sleeves, gather your ingredients, and get to work!
We start with the graham cracker crust. Who doesn’t love a graham cracker crust?
You’ll need two sleeves, butter, sugar, and salt for this sweet step. A food processor makes the procedure more enjoyable, unless you love smashing things in zip top bags until they are a fine powder. Sometimes this can be cathartic?
Once par baked, it’s time to make the lemon filling. I love this lemon filling because juice, flesh, and rind are all blended together, creating a complex and robust lemon flavor. Yum!
Once blitzed together, it gets baked. It WILL look bizarre and even unevenly browned. But trust me (and the recipe!), once you slather some of that sweet, sweet Swiss meringue on top, nobody will bat an eye.
Chill that sucker! While it’s cooling, whip up your Swiss meringue.
That’s the beauty of Swiss meringue: everything goes in one bowl (ideally the bowl of a stand mixer)! Put it over heat until it is very warm, whisking throughout.
It won’t look very “meringue-y” at first (I confess I had a brief moment where I wondered if I was doing it right) but once you put the warm mixture under a whisk, magical things happen. Spread the finished meringue over your cooled lemon bars and torch.
After! Serve immediately. If you can’t eat them all in one sitting, don’t worry. They are still just as delicious five days later, and I have to say they were even better on day two.
Gooey Lemon Meringue Pie Bars
- Blow torch or oven broiler
- Stand mixer or electric hand beater
Graham Cracker Crust
- 2 sleeves graham crackers, original
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 pinches fine salt
- 10 Tbs cold butter, cut into cubes
Whole Lemon Filling
- 2 whole lemons, scrubbed
- juice of 1 lemon
- 8 egg yolks, with whites reserved
- 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
Swiss Meringue Topping
- 8 egg whites
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9x13 pan with two pieces of parchment paper large enough to overhang on the sides of the pan. (This is to remove the lemon bars after they've cooled.)
- Place graham crackers, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until fine crumbs form. Add the butter and pulse until incorporated. The mixture should look and feel like wet sand. Transfer to the parchment papered baking pan and press the crumbs down into it in an even layer, taking care to send crumbs all the way to the corners. Bake for 10 minutes, or until just golden. Allow to cool.
- Trim the ends off of your lemons and slice two lengthwise. Cut into thin half moons (about 1/8th of an inch thick) and remove the seeds from the slices. Wipe out the food processor and place lemon slices, juice of one lemon, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, salt, and butter and blend until smooth. (Alternatively a blender works well for this.) Pour the mixture over the par baked crust and return to the oven, baking for 30 minutes more. (Don't worry of the graham crust is still warm when you pour the lemon filling into it.)
- Pull the lemon bars from the oven after 30 minutes and allow to cool completely in the fridge at least 2 hours or freezer at least 1 hour. Don't worry if the top looks unevenly browned or unsightly as it's going to get covered with meringue swirls!
- Once the bars have cooled completely, pull from the fridge. Using the parchment paper handles, pull the bars in one mass from the baking pan and discard the paper. Return the bars to the baking pan.
- Add egg whites, vanilla, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer (or other heat safe bowl, if using electric hand mixer) and place over a pot of simmering water (even 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pot is enough. Whisk continuously until the mixture is homogenous and very warm to the touch.
- Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer and beat until firm, glossy peaks form, 2-3 minutes. Plop the meringue over the cooled lemon bars and swirl using an offset spatula until desired effect is achieved.
- Using a torch or your oven's broiler, heat meringue until golden and toasted, around 1 minute. Keep a close eye on the meringue so it does not burn.
- Serve immediately. Keeps well up to five days in the fridge.