AUSTIN, Texas – Winter is lemon’s time to shine.
As much as I love straight-up neon yellow lemon bars dusted with a little powdered sugar, they always seem to be missing something. Maybe an oatmeal topping like other jam-based bars? A salty shortbread-like crust? A less cloying filling?
When I explained my conundrum to my grandmother while we were in Missouri over Christmas, she went straight to her pile of clipped recipes and pulled out one from Guideposts.
SDLqThis is Gaga’s Internet,” she said as she handed me the recipe.
That particular recipe ended up falling a little short during my lemon bar baking escapades in recent weeks, but I’m happy to report that I’ve found my own personal favorite recipe that incorporates a salted shortbread crust recipe that was printed in January’s edition of Bon Appetit magazine. (The filling for that Bon Appetit tart, which included thin lemon slices, rind and all, was too tart for even my lemon-loving palate.)
Once I’d found a solid crust recipe, I set out to try various fillings. Some called for gingerly cooking the lemon curd ahead of time in a saucepan. (I’ve now decided that that doesn’t make sense for a bar that will bake for 20 to 30 minutes in an oven.) Other fillings called for all egg yolks or a tablespoon of cornstarch for thickening.
Having baked my way through a dozen or so recipes in recent weeks, here are some lemon bar-making tips to help you improve your current favorite or find a new one:
- The crust and filling recipes are, for the most part, interchangeable.
- There are some really interesting recipes tweaks to the standard lemon bar recipe out there, including a little bit of lemongrass added into the filling, a handful of toasted coconuts tossed into the crust or a cream cheese layer between the curd and the crust.
- Make sure you bake the crust until it is a light golden brown, at least 15 or 20 minutes. If you don’t bake the crust enough before adding the filling, it gets soggy underneath the curd.
- I am a fan of letting the oven cook the curd for you so you don’t have to stand at the stove whisking until your arm hurts.
- Powdered sugar on top of any lemon bar is almost as much for looks as for taste.
- Sometimes, the curd turns a little brown if you overbake it, a “flaw” that is easily covered up with a little dusting of powdered sugar.
Jenay Benge’s Famous Lemon Bars
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 cups granulated sugar
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, stir 2 cups of the flour together with the butter and powdered sugar to make a dough. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan, building up a 1-inch edge on all sides.
Bake for 15 minutes, until very lightly browned; remove from the oven and place the pan on a wire rack. (Leave the oven on.)
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to mix the eggs with the granulated sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest; set aside. In a small bowl, mix the remaining 1/2 cup flour with the baking powder. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and mix well.
Pour the mixture over the prebaked crust.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden around the edges and set in the middle. Let the bars cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before refrigerating for another 30 minutes (which makes them easier to cut). Cut into squares and sprinkle with powdered sugar. You can eat them warm or at room temperature, but I love them ice-cold.
Store the bars, covered in plastic wrap, at room temperature for a couple of days (but they will best retain their flavor and shape for about 1 week in the refrigerator). They also can be stacked on layers of wax paper and frozen for about 1 month. Thaw them in the refrigerator.
Makes about 20 bars.
Recipe from “Sweet on Texas” by Denise Gee (Chronicle Books, $24.95)
Grapefruit Lemon Bars With Salted Shortbread Crust
For the crust
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt (reduce to 1 teaspoon if using salted butter)
3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting
For the filling
1/4 cup flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup reduced grapefruit juice (see cook’s note)
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon or grapefruit zest (or a mixture of both)
Cook’s note: You could make this with all grapefruit juice, but if you like the signature tart from lemon, use half reduced grapefruit juice and half lemon. You could use all lemon zest for this recipe or a mixture of both.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
To make the crust, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt in a small bowl. In a food processor, pulse together the butter and powdered sugar until smooth. (If you don’t have a food processor, you could use an electric hand-held mixer.) Add the dry ingredients to the food processor bowl, and pulse to combine, just until mixture is crumbly and holds together when pinched.
Tear two sheets of parchment paper and lay them perpendicular in an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. (This not only prevents the bar from sticking to the pan but it also makes it easier to remove the bars once they have cooled.)
Using dry fingers, press the crust mixture into the bottom of the parchment-lined dish and about a half-inch up the sides of the dish. Bake crust for about 25 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Remove from oven, but leave oven on.
While crust is baking, make the filling by whisking together the flour and sugar in a small bowl. In a large bowl, whisk together the citrus juice, eggs, salt and zest. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients, whisking until sugar has dissolved. Let the mixture rest for at least 10 minutes to let some of the air bubbles rise to the surface.
Pour filling into the warm crust and then place back in the oven. Bake for another 25 to 25 minutes, until center of filling has set. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Refrigerate for at least one hour before removing from pan and cutting into squares. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve.
Makes 16 to 25 square bars.
Based on recipe from Bon Appetit magazine.
Nell’s Lemon Bars
For the crust
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, melted
For the lemon filling
6 whole eggs
3 cups white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (do not use concentrate or bottled lemon juice)
Zest from 2 or 3 lemons
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix flour and powdered sugar together, then pour the butter over the dry ingredients and gently combine until just crumbly. (I use my Kitchen Aid on the lowest setting with the paddle attachment.)
Line a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan with parchment and press the crumbs firmly into the pan in an even-ish layer. If you prefer (or you’re out of parchment), you can grease the pan with butter or cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes at 350, but keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn.
While the crust is baking, whip the eggs until they are uniform and light in color. (To avoid beating a lot of air into the eggs, I use my stand mixer on the lowest setting with the whisk attachment.) Add sugar, baking powder and flour, then stir to combine well. Add the zest and lemon juice.
Pull the crust from the oven, and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees. Pour the curd mixture over the hot crust, scraping the bowl to get all the lemony goodness and pop the pan back in the over for 20 to 40 minutes. Watch them closely, they’re ready to be pulled when they don’t jiggle in the middle. (I find this takes about 25-30 minutes in my current oven, it might take more or less time in yours.)
Once out of the oven, let them cool completely (this means until the bottom of the pan is cool) before slicing into squares. Dust the top with powdered sugar.
Recipe courtesy Nell Rice Gonzalez