Finding decent store-bought lemon bars is as hard as getting Grumpy Cat to smile. Most of the stuff plain isn’t worth eating.
If you want to enjoy lemon bars in all their glory, you just have to make them yourself or get yourself invited over for dinner to a good home baker’s house. Here’s the thing: they are not hard to make. The ingredients are easy to shop for and an hour in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon will reward you and your family with the ambrosia of the gods: a tender crust, topped by a silky custard and a bright, tangy burst of flavor. If you want, you can even prepare the crust a day ahead and leave it unbaked in the fridge, then finish the lemon bars quickly the next day.
The recipe for the crust comes from Cooks Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe, while the filling comes from David Woods Dessert Book’s recipe for Tart Lemon Tart. I just like David Wood’s lemon custard better. It has an intense lemon flavor that the orange juice actually helps enhance and round out. It has no flour as a thickener, which many any lemon bar recipes include. Flour lessens the intensity of the lemon flavour and makes the texture less silky which is why this recipe is particularly special.
These lemon bars are equally wonderful after a rich curry dinner or other highly flavored main course or as an accompaniment to a summertime picnic.
Butter a 9’’ x 12’’ x 2’’ pan. Line the pan with parchment paper – it will make getting the bars out of the pan easier and it will make cleaning up easier. Grease the parchment paper with a tablespoon of soft butter. You can use non-stick spray if you prefer and are willing to ingest the chemicals.
Preheat the oven to 350F and adjust the rack to the middle position.
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup icing or confectioner’s sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons of unsalted butter, slightly softened but still cool, cut into 1 inch pieces.
Place the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and process briefly until blended. Add the butter and process 8 – 10 seconds. Then pulse three times for one second each. The mixture should be pale yellow, like coarse meal. Sprinkle the mixture into the pan and using a fork, pat down evenly over the bottom of the pan. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes then bake 15-20 minutes, until the crust starts to turn slightly golden. While the crust is baking, make the filling.
¾ cup of sugar
2 oz unsalted butter, softened
4 eggs at room temperature
Zest of one lemon
¾ cup lemon juice
¼ cup orange juice
Zest one lemon using a lemon zester or box grater. Set aside. Juice 4-5 lemons, so you have ¾ cup lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup. Top this up to the 1 cup mark with ¼ cup of orange juice.
Cream together the soft butter and the sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. You can use a standing mixer, hand held mixer or a fork and a lot of energy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly before adding the next one.
Add the lemon zest and beat again until thoroughly mixed.
Now pour in the lemon and orange juices and beat until thoroughly incorporated. Let stand until the crust comes out of the oven, then whisk to recombine and pour over the crust.
Turn the oven down to 325F as you put the custard in the oven (too high heat makes the eggs tough) and put the lemon bars in the oven.
Bake 25-30 minutes, until the filling is just set when you jiggle the pan gently. Check after 20 minutes and do not let the custard brown at the edges. For the silkiest texture, don’t overbake. When done, remove from the oven and cool on a rack, then let the bars chill in the refrigerator at least two hours before serving. To serve, cut in in 2” x 2” squares and, for a pretty presentation, dust lightly with icing sugar just before putting them out. Don’t sprinkle the icing sugar on too early, as the custard is moist. Alternately, you can use some candied orange peel, violets or lemon slices which are very pretty but which detract, to my mind, from the silkiness of the custard filling.
On special occasions, serve Lemon Bars as part of a tray along with slices of Blueberry Loaf with Crumble Topping and Orange Pecan Cookies. The textures of these 3 are all different but the flavours are all complementary.