When I go Christmas shopping, I have a bit of a bad habit. Very rarely, if ever, do I manage to get through an entire shopping trip without buying at least one thing for myself that catches my eye. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be out shopping for everyone else. However, sometimes when you’re just browsing, you tend to stumble upon some fantastic finds.
This past holiday season, I spent a good chunk of an afternoon wandering around Barnes & Noble. I really hope that brick and mortar book stores never disappear completely; I thoroughly enjoy floating from section to section, leafing through books that look interesting, and totally losing all sense of time. On that particular day, there was a display of local, Pittsburgh-themed books and among them was a new cookbook with dishes from popular restaurants around the city. I snatched it up for myself, along with a handful of other books for people on my shopping list.
After the hustle and bustle of the holidays died down, I curled up on the couch with this book and dug in. Almost every single one of them jumped out at me, and there were at least a couple that I had enjoyed before. When I flipped the page to these lemon meringue bars, a light bulb went off. I’ve never been head over heels for lemon bars; I find that they’re generally a little too tart for my super sweet taste buds. However, lemon meringue pie, I can always get behind. The crust and the meringue help to balance the tart of the lemon; plus, I never turn down pie.
These bars offer all of the best parts of pie, but without the fuss of a pie crust, blind baking, or making lemon curd. The crust bakes up into a soft, almost cookie-like base, which I found to be absolutely phenomenal. The filling is tart without being bitter, and then oh, that beautiful meringue!
As you can see, it piles up extremely high, which I just adore. Big, pillowy layers of meringue toasted with a kitchen torch. If you prefer smaller, hand-held bars, you could cut the amount of meringue down. I personally love that it’s a pretty low-maintenance dessert, but makes such a grand statement.
If this recipe and the book have taught me anything, it’s that it is absolutely, 100% A-OKAY to buy yourself presents while Christmas shopping for others :)
Make the Crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter an 8x8-inch square baking pan, then line it with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on each side. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and mix to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, reduce the mixer speed to low, and add the flour and graham cracker crumbs, mixing until a dough forms. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and pat into an even layer (the dough will be rather soft). Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until light golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a wire cooling rack.
Make the Filling: Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the yolks on high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add the condensed milk and beat until light and fluffy, an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the lemon juice and beat on medium speed until combined, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Pour the filling over the crust and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the filling is set and the center does not jiggle when the pan is moved. Remove from the oven and place the pan on a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Once completely cooled, cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Make the Meringue Topping: In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, the water, and the corn syrup over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once boiling, do not stir, and heat to 240 degrees F.
Meanwhile, using an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Gradually add the remaining 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. If the sugar syrup has not yet reached 240 degrees, turn the mixer off and wait. Once the syrup reaches the correct temperature, turn the mixer speed to medium and add the syrup to the bowl in a slow, steady stream down the side of the bowl. Increase the speed to high and beat until thick, fluffy and cool, about 7 minutes.
Spread the meringue on top of the chilled lemon bar, swirling to form peaks. Using a kitchen torch, torch the meringue to a golden brown color. If you do not own a torch, you can place the pan in a 500 degree F oven for a few minutes to brown the top. Be sure to keep a close eye on it so it doesn't burn. Allow the meringue to cool, then slice into bars and serve. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.