Lemon Meringue Bars (or, Bribing My Baby)

by Carilyn on July 18, 2020

I don’t love lemon meringue pie, but Grant was about to head back to D.C. after being stuck with us for three months, and he loves lemon meringue. So, there it is. Poor guy, the courthouse was evacuated, and his judge pushed all her clerks to get out of D.C., and even though he was grumpy about it, Tim and I were thrilled. It is not very often you get to have your twenty-four year old come home for an extended stay, at least when you know he doesn’t intend to move back in permanently.

We spent the first month of the quarantine pretending we were on vacation, swimming, eating, and drinking too much. It was fun, but it was impossible to forget that we were locked down for a horrible reason. Grant had to continue to work from here, so our living room became an office, complete with a copier, fax machine, two computers, a landline, and a whole lot of mess. I tried not to act like it was driving me crazy, which became near impossible when he also took over part of the dining room table. There is A LOT of stress practicing law under the best of circumstances, but especially when your office mate keeps yelling at you to make your bed, pick up your shoes, and stop eating all of her Red Vines.

After the first month, we managed to settle into a pretty good routine (despite the mess in multiple rooms of the house). We all went about our business during the day, and came together for our traditional “Don’t Do Drugs Dinner” every evening at 6:30 just like when the kids were growing up. I loved having another palate to cook for, pulling out some of Grant’s favorites that I had quit making when it was just me and Tim. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Glazed ham and carrots. Pot roast. Wine chicken and pasta. Butter chicken and rice. All of the cooking helped immensely with the stress of worrying about our world.

Especially the desserts. Desserts, for me, are better than medication for anxiety. Give me a layer cake, a sugar cookie, or a cream puff, and I will forget that the apocalypse may be banging on the door. But notice that lemon meringue pie is not on the list of “desserts that work better than Xanax”.

The problem for me with lemon meringue pie is the lemon. And the meringue. Hmmm. I’m not a fan of the taste (sour), or the consistency (gelatinous). But I love my son more than life itself, so off I went, looking for some inspiration.

First thing, I knew I didn’t want to make a standard pie crust. Making the lemon curd and meringue was already going to be a half day endeavor, and I had a lot of miles to get done. Solution, graham cracker crust. Besides being a massive time saver, graham cracker crust adds more sweetness to the dessert, mitigating some of the tartness of the curd. Desserts should be sweet, amiright? So, I’m lazy and have a sweet tooth – no surprise there.

This recipe is fairly easy as far lemon meringue pies go. No separating eggs. No dough resting. No soggy bottom from putting lemon curd on pie crust. When I was searching for recipes, I saw Deb Perlman (Smitten Kitchen) had a lemon meringue BAR. Genius (she always is – I LOVE her). Making it into bars rather than a pie seems like you get a better ratio of everything. I know this is not mathematically accurate, but it FEELS like you get more sweet graham crust with each bite, and in these stressful times, I’m willing to convince myself of just about anything if it makes me feel better.

Grant has gone back to D.C., and I miss him terribly, so I may just make these bars again to remind me of the weird “vacation” we had while being locked in our house.

 

Lemon Meringue Bars

(from Smitten Kitchen)

Crust

9 graham cracker sheets – 1 sleeve – broken up

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

 

Filling

1 whole lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

4 large egg yolks

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

 

Meringue

4 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8×8 baking pan with parchment, making sure to leave extra above the rim so you can pull the bars out easily.

Put the crust ingredients into a food processor and pulse until you get a sand like texture. Press into your pan, covering the bottom and extending up the sides a bit. Bake about 10 minutes, until golden. Let cool.

Start your filling while the crust cools.

Trim the stem off the lemon and cut into thin slices. Remove seeds. In a blender (or your food processor – cleaned), blend all the filling ingredients until very smooth. Pour over the crust (it can still be a bit warm – no worries) and bake for 30 minutes. You want it to be bubbly and brown around the edges. It will not be completely set. Cool for 10 minutes, and then run a sharp knife around the edges or you will never get the bars out after the meringue is on top. Cool completely and then put in the freezer or refrigerator until fully chilled.

Once chilled, remove it from pan and take off the parchment paper. You don’t want to set the paper on fire when you torch/bake the meringue. Put the soon-to-be bars on a baking sheet.

Make the meringue by combining all the ingredients into the metal bowl of your stand mixer, and then place it over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk continuously until the sugar is completely dissolved (160 degrees). Move the bowl to your stand mixer, and whisk on high speed until glossy and very stiff – about 3 minutes.

Spoon onto the lemon layer and use your spatula/spoon/knife to create a wavy texture. Brown with a kitchen torch, or put under the broiler until just golden – don’t over brown.

Cut into squares.

 

 

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I’ve spent most of this quarantine swinging between seeking out the comfortable (doing loops and getting miles on the TM while watching Food Network) and craving things that make me feel like this isn’t the end (hard trail runs and long swims). The same holds true in the kitchen. One day I’m trying to crack the code on a perfect loaf of bread, and the next I’m making an apple cake that I’ve been eating since I was a child. I can’t seem to settle down, and we are three weeks into this lockdown, with no end in sight. I’m a caged animal with a wicked sugar habit – much like I was as a child. I have reverted.

I posted my mom’s original apple cake recipe back in 2016. It is a gem, and I treasure it. But, over the years, I’ve experimented with other versions just for kicks, and one of my favorites is Dorie Greenspan’s. Although she adds raisins to hers (absolutely not), the cake is amazing (obviously without any nasty raisins). I’ve made it with walnuts and pecans, and both are great; it just depends on what you are going for, or in my case, what I have more of at any given time.

Honestly, after I finished my 20 miles, I wasn’t planning to bake a cake. Tim stockpiled candy before the lockdown, so there is really no need for me to bake multiple times a week just to satisfy my sweet tooth. There is, in fact, a half pan of brownies still sitting on the counter that we have eaten plain and smothered in sliced strawberries and whipped cream. But the craving for something that felt safe, felt familiar, felt homey, was overwhelming. I love a good brownie, but they just don’t smell like childhood.

So, into the kitchen I went, still dressed in tights and a Javelina Jundred t-shirt (ONLY benefit of the quarantine is that I can walk around all day in my running togs and absolutely no one says anything about it). I decided to make Dorie’s recipe because I had half a jar of spiced apple butter in the fridge, and this cake is the only place where it is appropriate to use (whomever thought putting it on toast was a good idea should do fifty push-ups – blerg). It is cloyingly sweet on it’s own, but whipped into a cake batter? Perfection.

Apron on, I whipped the butter and sugar to the requisite pale fluff, with only the sound of my mixer and the birds outside the window. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough “noise” for the past few weeks – news updates, press conferences, political punditry – my brain is fried. One by one, I slowly added in the eggs, the apple butter, the chopped apples. Dry ingredients next, then a gentle folding in of the pecans. I spooned the whole glorious mess into a bundt pan and put it into the oven. I had 50 minutes to go take a shower, but again, why? Instead, I made myself a cup of coffee and stared at the cake baking in the oven. My version of meditation.

When it was done, I barely made it the 5 minutes it needed to cool before I inverted it onto the cooling rack, and cut off a piping hot piece. Then another. And another. A big glass of milk as a chaser, and everything seemed just a little bit better. After a hot shower, I put my jammies on (yes, it was only three o’clock, but who’s gonna tell?) and crawled into bed for a nap. Sometimes the rituals of childhood are exactly what is needed at the moment.

Run/Walk

Cake/Milk

Shower/Nap

Repeat until this is all over.

 

Apple Spiced Bundt Cake

(adapted slightly from Dorie Greenspan)

2 cups AP flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 large eggs at room temperature

1 cup spiced apple butter

2 medium apples, peeled, cored and chopped

1 cup pecans or walnuts, roughly chopped

 

Heat oven to 350 with rack centered. Grease (butter and a dusting of flour, or baking spray) a 9 – 10 inch Bundt pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Set aside

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until it is pale and fluffy (Dorie recommends 3 minutes, but mine always seems to take a bit longer – my kitchen is always cold). Add the eggs one at a time, mixing for a full minute in between and after. Add in the apple butter and mix well.

Turn the machine to low and mix in the chopped apples. Slowly add in the dry ingredients, and mix until just incorporated. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer, and gently mix in the chopped nuts.

Scoop the batter into the Bundt pan, smoothing it out evenly. Place on the center rack (without a baking sheet – heat needs to get up into the center tube to cook the cake in the middle), and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Because of the spiced apple butter, the cake is going to be a dark, nutty brown.

Dorie suggests glazing the cake with a powdered sugar/lemon juice glaze, but I like to eat this cake as is, or slathered in butter and toasted. The glaze makes it too “desserty” for me, but feel free to dress it up, if you like.

 

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