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The Best Lemon Bars

Posted Jan 16 2013 3:01am

I’m pretty picky about my lemon bars. The filling, the crust, and the sweet-tart balance all has to be just right. I’m like Goldilocks with her porridge.

These are Goldilocks approved.

  Before making these, I researched dozens of recipes, studying each meticulously, but nothing sounded exactly perfect. I referenced one of my favorite cookbooks, The New Best Recipe , but when I saw seven eggs, I slammed the book shut immediately.Unless you’re feeding a football team, any one singular dessert does not need seven eggs, period. I also checked out another trusty resource, The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion , and many others. But in the end, I came up with my own.

The bars consist of an easy shortbread crust, topped with an intensely lemony filling. The tartness and sweetness are well-balanced. You don’t even have to lug out your mixer to make them.

Make the crust by combining all-purpose flour, confectioners’ sugar, and one tablespoon of cornstarch, with one stick of very soft butter in a medium bowl. The softer the butter is, the easier of a time you’ll have. You can do this with a food processor, but it comes together in just a minute by hand, which I prefer to washing out my food processor for such a fast little crust.

Just as cornstarch helps cookies stay soft and tender, it does the same for this crust. Shortbread crusts tend to become too dry, hard, or tasteless, and remind me of dog biscuits, which is why I never make biscotti. I’m sorry for anyone who likes it but it’s so unsatisfying for me because I can’t get past that dry, hard-yet-crumbly dough. The cornstarch keeps this crust just a bit softer than some, preventing the cardboard phenomenon.

The crust mixture will seem crumbly, but transfer the pea-sized lumps and crumbs to an eight-inch square foil-lined pan, and press them down until a smooth crust forms. Prick it haphazardly with a fork in a dozen places so the steam can escape, and bake it for 12 to 15 minutes. As it bakes, if you notice any big air bubbles forming, prick them down with a fork, and continue baking.

You don’t want to impart color or have it turn golden. You just want it to firm up and hold together because the pan is going back into the oven anyway to bake the filling.

While the crust bakes, make the filling by coming two eggs, sugar, one-half cup of lemon juice, splash of cream, optional vanilla and lemon extracts, and whisk. My recipe differs from many I’ve seen in that it doesn’t use half of a carton of eggs, just two. The presence of two tablespoons of cream helps give the filling some depth, richness, and creaminess that you can’t get without it.

Most notably, the ration of lemon juice ratio is much, much higher than in most recipes. For an 8-inch square pan, most call for two tablespoons whereas mine uses eight (one-half cup); four times the amount. You’d think this would make you pucker up up for days but really, it doesn’t. The bars are robustly lemon-flavored, but not ridiculous, and they’re how I think a lemon bar should be. If I wanted a blondie with a hint of lemon, I’d use two tablespoons of lemon juice, but I wanted a good old-fashioned lemon bar, full of zing and tang. But they’re also sweet enough to be considered dessert, not torture.

With lemon desserts, balancing tartness with sweetness can be tricky. Too much lemon, and I want to pucker up and hide; too little, and I’m bored. Too much sugar and they have a sickeningly sweet quality; too little, and I want the torture to end. I think these are spot on, both in tartness and sweetness. Of course, if you don’t want something quite as tart, you could start with one-quarter cup of lemon juice; taste, and increase accordingly.

The overall depth of lemon flavor is boosted from two teaspoons of lemon zest. Most recipes this size use one teaspoon, but I doubled it and used two. When zesting a lemon, make sure to just take off the outermost yellow layer. As you move into white pith, it becomes more and more bitter. There’s a difference between tartness and bitterness. I prefer the former, not so much the later.

I also added a tiny bit of vanilla extract, something that isn’t traditional in lemon bars, but I love vanilla . I didn’t need to add any lemon extract as they’re already very lemony, but if you’re a lemon fiend, go for it. Citric acid will also make the lemon flavor really pop if you’re someone who just can’t get enough lemon intensity. It’s frequently used in pickling and canning, and found in the canning section of most grocery stores if you want to play around.

Pour the filling mixture over the crust and bake it for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the top has just set. As you pour the filling over the crust, it will seem like it’s liquid soup and there’s no way that it will set up in fifteen minutes time, but surprisingly, it does. Bake until the top has just set in the center and isn’t watery. Some movement and looseness is fine, and that’s how lemon bars are, but there shouldn’t be pooled liquid. Don’t overcook them and turn them into a rubbery state, either. They do firm up as they cool.

Cool them for about an hour at room temperature, and then refrigerate them for at least three hours before slicing. Although you could serve them at room temperature, a chilled lemon bar with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar is the only way for me. They’ll keep for up to five days in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

I am so pleased with these because the flavor is robustly lemony and tart, but they’re not sour, pungent, bitter, or overwhelming. They’re just sweet enough, but not too much. The sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar gives them a tiny bit of additional sweetness and gives them that classic lemon bar appearance.

The filling itself is dense but light, almost like a lemon custard with a touch of creaminess. It’s smooth and firm, without being rubbery. The crust is buttery, just crisp enough, but retains some softness, flakiness, and tenderness. It’s a ever-so-slightly sweetened and thick enough to stand up to the layer of lemon filling and not be overwhelmed by it. I don’t like it when shortbread crusts are paper thin and prefer them on the thicker side . Not too thick, not too thin. Hello Goldilocks.

My almost six-year old is a lemon fanatic. She’ll reach into a water glass with a lemon, fish it out, and eat it. She loved these because anything lemon-flavored is a hit with her. My husband said these are his favorite lemon bars of all-time, too. Not that either of us eat lemon bars all that often, but when we do, I’ll use this recipe.

I wouldn’t call them The Best if I didn’t really think they were.

The Best Lemon Bars

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: one 8-by-8-inch pan, 9 generous squares

These good old-fashioned lemon bars pack a punch of robust lemon flavor, without being either too tart or too sweet. They come together in minutes by hand and are so satisfying. A soft, flaky, buttery shortbread crust is the base for the golden yellow lemon filling that tops it. As they bake, the filling sets up into a gorgeous shade of yellow, and is dense yet light, smooth, and creamy. They're my favorite recipe for lemons bars me and remind me of the lemon bars my mom and grandma used to make.

Ingredients:

For the Crust

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), very soft

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 heaping cup confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

pinch salt, optional and to taste

For the Filling

2 large eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup lemon juice, or to taste (about 2 juicy medium lemons; see note below)

2 tablespoons half-and-half (whole milk or cream are okay)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional and to taste

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract, optional and to taste

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons lemon zest loosely packed, or to taste (see note below)

confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with aluminum foil, spray with cooking spray; set aside.

For the Crust - In a large bowl, combine all crust ingredients and cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a pasty cutter or just stir and mash with a spoon until a sandy, crumbly mixture forms. I do it by hand because it's easy, fast, and I don't have to wash out my food processor; but use one if you prefer. Transfer crumbly mixture to prepared pan and using your fingertips, press crumbs down to form an even flat layer of crust. Prick crust with a fork haphazardly in a dozen places so air and steam can escape while it bakes. If air bubbles form while baking, prick them down and return pan to oven. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until crust has just barely set. It should not be golden or browned at all, it should still be white. You just want it to stick together and it doesn't need to be cooked through fully since pan is going back in the oven to bake filling. While crust bakes, make the filling.

For the Filling - In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, lemon juice (start with 1/4 cup and increase to taste; I find that using less than 1/2 cup isn't intense enough, but add to taste), half-and-half, optional vanilla (I used it even though it's not traditional), optional lemon extract (I don't find it necessary and omitted it), and whisk until smooth. Add the flour and whisk until lumps are gone. Add lemon zest (add to taste, starting with 1 teaspoon but I prefer 2 teaspoons) and whisk to combine. Pour mixture over crust. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes (I baked for 18), or until the top has just set and isn't jiggly in center. Some movement and looseness is normal and desired, you just don't want it liquid-like or runny; slicing into some looseness is fine, liquid is not. Top will be yellow and lemon-colored, but not browned. Allow bars to cool at room temperature for at least on hour. Cover pan and refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight, before slicing and serving. Optionally, dust with confectioners' sugar before serving. Store extra bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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Do you like Lemon Bars or lemon-flavored desserts Do you bake with citrus?

Feel free to link your favorites. I want to bake more with citrus while it’s still at it’s peak.

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