Dream Bars

meringue on dough We're pretty much all in the thick of summer fun right now, so I'll get right to the point. Sometimes I have a recipe making and eating experience so transcendant, it haunts me for weeks. These Dream Bars from Mindy Segal's Cookie Love fall into the category of Insanely Haunting Recipe. Like, say, even after two solid weeks where I ran off to my hometown of Chicago and chewed-and-sighed through the world's best hot dogs and Italian beef, new-to-me bakery visits, beer and pizza and a burger so smack-the-table good that it probably ruined every burger experience for the rest of my life, I was still thinking about these cookie bars.

smoothing dough

Even during days filled with late June sunshine and the occasional lovely, cleansing summer rain and wide green lawns and my kids running through sprinklers and wine-soaked meals with old friends that left me with with aching abs from laughing so hard, I still had flashes of these Dream Bars. These gems are aptly named, I'll tell you that right now. This recipe is a keeper, no doubt.

chocolate shards

I realize that this is my second meringue-topped recipe in as many months, so I must be in some kind of Meringue Period. But honestly, I guess I'm always sort of that zone, it's just that it feels especially right during this season--lightly baked meringue sings summer sweetness and light to me, a cloud-like alternative to buttercream. And one of my favorite ways to change it up is by switching out the sugar, instead of just using plain old white granulated.

In Real Sweet, I've got two meringue recipes: a Crisp, Raw Sugar Meringue made with turbinado that's just right for a bumped-up pavlova with all the gorgeous summer fruits that are out right now, and a Soft, Fluffy Honey Meringue that is a glorious topping for pies, or even for icing cakes (note: meringue with honey will never, ever bake up crisp, no matter how crafty you get with technique or prayer. I've got the Recipe Testing PTSD to prove it).

whipped meringue

But with these Dream Bars, we get to make a brown sugar meringue using standard-issue supermarket brown sugar--but the taste is so divine and anything but standard. If you're that type of person who's into melting, layered, sweet-salty slabs of shortbread, dark chocolate, and pillowy meringue with a whisper of caramel, then don't delay. and by "that type of person", I mean every person, ever.

dream bars

Dream Bars Adapted from Mindy Segal's Cookie Love

I think the ideal pan for this recipe is a rimmed quarter-sheet pan, of which I own about a hundred. I buy mine for a steal at a restaurant supply store, and they really are the most useful pans in my kitchen--I highly recommend picking up a few. If you don't have a quarter-sheet, though, a 9-by-13-inch pan will work.

You'll notice the recipe calls for extra-large eggs, and yes, this extra touch of fat, protein and moisture does make a difference in baking, especially with something that can tend to crumble on you, like shortbread. I usually only stock large eggs, so I used two large, and half of a well-beated third egg, and all was well.

If you wanted to play with less-refined sugars for this recipe, swap in evaporated cane juice for the shortbread, and light muscovado for the meringue, as I did.

Makes 30 bars

4 ounces (113 grams) bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70% cacao), melted 1 cup (2 sticks/8 ounces/224 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces/100 grams) granulated sugar or evaporated cane juice 1 tablespoon water 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 2 extra-large eggs, separated, at room temperature 2 cups (9 ounces/256 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt 1 cup (8 ounces/224 grams) firmly packed dark brown sugar or light muscovado sugar

Begin by making the shards for the chocolate layer: Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. With an offset spatula, spread the melted chocolate very thinly and evenly across the parchment to form a rectangle about 9-by-13 inches. Place the baking sheet in the freezer until completely firm, about 10 minutes.

Lightly coat a quarter sheet pan or 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment paper, leaving 1 inch of overhang on the opposite long sides.

To make the shortbread, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light in color, fluffy, and aerated, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping the bowl often.

Add the water and vanilla to the egg yolks. Keeping the mixer on medium speed, add the yolks, one at a time. Mix until the batter is smooth.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Reduce the mixer speed to low. Stir the flour mixture into the batter just until the dough comes together, and still looks a bit shaggy. Remove the bowl from the mixer and finish stirring the dough by hand.

Turn the dough into the prepared pan. Smooth it as best as you can with a spatula. To completely smooth the shortbread into the pan, cover the dough with a large sheet of plastic wrap, and run a flexible bench or bowl scraper over the plastic wrap to squish the dough into an even layer. Peel back the plastic and discard.

Remove the chocolate from the freezer and break it up into shards. Scatter the chocolate shards across the surface of the dough and then press into the dough (you'll want to press firmly so that the shards are held fast into the dough, but work quickly so the heat of your hands doesn't melt the chocolate). Cover the top with plastic wrap, pressing down gently again through the plastic to smooth down the top. Refrigerate until the dough is set, at least 20 minutes or overnight. (If refrigerating the dough overnight, refrigerate the egg whites as well, letting them come to room temperature before proceeding with the meringue.)

When you're ready to bake, position an oven rack to the center of the oven, and preheat it to 350°F.

To make the meringue topping, into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and a pinch of fine sea salt on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the brown sugar gradually and increase the speed to medium-high. Whip the meringue to glossy stiff peaks, about 3 minutes. Spread the meringue artfully and evenly over the chilled dough.

Bake until the meringue resembles a lightly toasted marshmallow, 23 to 25 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees about halfway through baking. It will start to crack on the sides but should still be slightly soft in the center, and the shortbread should be cooked through but still pale-not golden brown. (Do not overbake or the shortbread will be too crumbly to cut.) Cool completely in the pan. Once cool, refrigerate until chilled.

Lift the bars out of the pan using the parchment handles and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 30 small bars (a small bite goes a long way, here). The bars can be baked, cooled, then refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.