Lemon, of course, is an ingredient that inspires us year round. Somehow, though, using the bright, refreshing flavors of lemon zest and juice in these cupcakes seems perfectly suited to the colorful, hopeful, sunny, and happy season that is spring.
This recipe relies on the two essential ingredients of traditional lemon meringue pie: lemon filling (or, better yet, curd) and meringue. What makes this dessert unique, however, is the replacing of soft lemon chiffon cakes for the crisp pie crust. Moist and perfumed and flavored with citrusy lemon zest and juice, they form a delicious pillowy vessel into which the creamy, lemony curd is spooned and then topped with billowy dollops or swirls of meringue.
The cupcakes can be prepared in a couple of hours, or make the lemon curd and cakes ahead and finish them later with the meringue. Once the cakes are assembled, I have called for caramelizing the meringue in the oven. If you have one, though, a small kitchen torch (available at most cookware stores) works just as well and more quickly, too.
4 large egg yolks
Zest of 1 large lemon (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
Juice of 1 large lemon (about 5 tablespoons)
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
5 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, separated
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 medium lemon)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
To make the lemon curd, whisk together the egg yolks, lemon zest and juice, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Set over medium-low heat and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook until the curd has thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon. Immediately remove from the heat and stir in the butter, 3 or 4 pieces at a time. Strain into a small bowl, place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the curd to prevent a skin from forming, and set in the refrigerator to chill.
To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of a standard 12-cup (1/2-cup capacity each) muffin tin with parchment paper rounds.
Whisk together the flour, 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of the sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the egg yolks, oil, lemon zest, water, lemon juice, and vanilla in a small bowl until combined. Add to the flour mixture and whisk until smooth.
Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until foamy, and add the cream of tartar. Gradually incorporate the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and whip to stiff, but not dry, peaks.
Immediately fold about one-third of the whipped egg whites into the batter, mixing until incorporated. Add the remaining whipped egg whites and fold until combined.
Divide the batter among the muffin cups, bang the pan firmly against a firm work surface to dissipate any air bubbles, and bake until the cakes have risen, are fragrant, and a wooden skewer inserted in the centers comes out clean, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, set on a wire rack, and cool the cakes completely in the pan. To unmold the cakes, run a paring knife around the edges of the cakes and carefully coax out of the muffin cups. Peel off the parchment paper rounds. (If you’re not serving the cakes immediately, they can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight or frozen for about 2 weeks.)
To finish the cakes, reheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cut a cone-shaped piece out of the top of each cake, leaving about a 1/2-inch rim and cutting about 3/4 inch deep into the cake. Remove the very tips of the cones. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of lemon curd into each cakes, replace the tops, and set aside. (You might have a bit of curd left over, or you can divide the remainder evenly among the cakes.)
To make the meringue, put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until foamy, and add the cream of tartar. Gradually incorporate the sugar and pinch of salt and whip to stiff, but not dry, peaks.
Using about half of the meringue to start, spoon it into a pastry bag fitted with a star or plain tip, and pipe swirls or stars on top of the cupcakes. Refill the bag as necessary. You might have some meringue left over, depending on how much you pipe onto each cake. (You can also simply dollop about 1/3 cup of meringue on top of each cupcake and, using a spoon or an off-set spatula, swirl it and create pretty peaks.)
Arrange the cakes about 2 inches apart on a large baking sheet and bake just until the meringue is golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
Serve the cakes immediately, or store in an airtight container (the top should not touch the caramelized meringue peaks) and chill for up to 24 hours.