Though I’ve loved baking (and sugar!) from an early age, my first attempt at lemon bars did not occur until my college days, during a Santa Cruz-induced “healthy” phase. A friend and I packed a crust made of sunflower seeds and honey into the bottom of a pan, then poured lemon curd made from her parents’ home-grown lemons over the top. It was a noble pursuit. But as it baked, bits of the crust floated up to the top, marring the surface. The “bars” baked into a sort of gooey, lemony gum. They got eaten, but without much pleasure.
Since then, I’ve stuck to a more classic shortbread crust for lemon bars, believing that a small portion of a satisfying dessert beats eating a whole pan of gummy lemon bars any day.
Typical lemon bars contain just sugar, eggs, lemon juice and zest (and sometimes flour) in their usually thin, and sometimes over-baked, layer of topping. These tend to bake up sturdy, sometimes browned on top (often with a thick layer of crust which may or may not be underbaked and bland), and tasting mostly of sugar and egg. Lemon bars like these have the benefit of portability, their topping and bottoms firm enough to stack and wrap.
These lemon bars are a different story. Their ample layer of barely baked buttery curd is creamy and soft, more the texture of a French lemon tart. (In fact, I adapted the recipe to make a blood orange tart last year.) They may not be the best bar to take on a picnic, or to set on a sunny buffet table. But they are the best bars to eat from the fridge on a warm spring day, the crust shattering between your teeth as the curd oozes and melts in your mouth, leaving behind a whisper of floral meyer lemon. They are the bar to serve at a classy cocktail party, or to carefully bring to someone you care about, who will be eating them right away. You may get a bit of soft curd smeared on your fingers when you pick one up, but that just gives you something to look forward to after you’ve devoured your bar.
The recipe comes from a favorite cookbook, one that I return to again and again: Williams Sonoma’s Essentials of Baking. Every recipe in this book has proven top-notch, and these lemon bars are no exception.
I swapped out some AP flour in the crust in exchange for yellow semolina, a flour made from durham wheat and commonly used in pasta-making. The semolina makes the crust even more delicate, crisped and browned from ample butter, with an ever-so-slight crunch (though not the sand-in-your-teeth texture of cornmeal). A curd made from loads of Meyer lemon juice and zest, 3 eggs and 1 yolk (reduced from 3 yolks because I already have too many egg whites laying around and the bars don’t need them), just the right amount of sugar, and a generous dose of butter tops the crumbly crust.
Meyers are a hybrid of regular (Eureka) lemons and tangerines. In most cases involving dessert, I find that Meyers kick Eureka’s asses (if lemons had asses, that is). Their skin is softer and thinner, their juice abundant, sweeter and more complex, tasting like drops of sunshine and flowers. Their bright golden zest and juice turn the curd a vibrant yellow. Some Californians are fortunate to have trees thriving in their backyards, like my dear friends Terry and Malaika, who generously gift us with a huge bag of the fruits anytime we come to visit. Their tree always seems to be fruiting fervently. Lacking Meyers, WS says you can use Eureka lemon zest and juice in this recipe, though I’d imagine these bars would be more tart.
- add freshly grated ginger, lavender buds, lemon verbena, lemon balm or vanilla bean to the curd along with the juice
- pulse 3-4 tablespoons pine nuts or pistachios into the crust
- use fine cornmeal or millet flour in place of the semolina
- use bergamot zest in place of the lemon, or swap the juice and zest for pink grapefruit or pomelo
You can even follow the directions for the blood orange tart and bake this in an 8″ tart pan. These bars are dainty enough that you can put them on a plate with a scoop of hibiscus-rhubarb sorbet and pistachios, a drizzle of blood orange reduction, or a jumble of fresh berries, for an any-time-of-year dessert. The lemaniacs in your life will love you forever.
Meyer Lemon Semolina Bars
Adapted from The Essentials of Baking
Makes sixteen 2″ bars
1/3 cup (1 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (1 3/4 ounces) semolina flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2″ dice
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2″ dice
1 teaspoon finely grated meyer lemon zest (from about 1 lemon)
3/4 cup strained meyer lemon juice (from about 5 lemons)
1 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
powdered sugar, for dusting
Make the crust:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line an 8″ square pan with parchment paper on the bottom and up the sides. (Alternately, you can use thick aluminum foil, or an un-lined pan greased with butter.)
Combine the flours, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter cubes and pulse until no large butter chunks remain and the mixture begins to clump together into the size of peas. (You can also do this in a large bowl with your fingertips.) Dump the crumbs into the prepared pan and press the dough as evenly as possible into the bottom.
Bake the crust until it is golden all over, about 15-20 minutes.
Make the curd:
Set a mesh sieve over a heatproof bowl or large measuring cup and set aside. Place the diced butter and lemon zest in a small bowl and set aside.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the sugar, eggs and egg yolk to combine. Whisk in the lemon juice. Place the pot over medium-low heat, and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula, until the mixture thickens slightly and reaches 160-170º on an instant-read thermometer, 5 – 10 minutes. As you stir, be sure to scrape the entire bottom and corners of the pan, so that the mixture heats as evenly as possible.
Immediately strain the mixture through the sieve to stop the cooking. Whisk in the butter pieces and zest until combined. (If you accidentally cook your curd too far and it begins to curdle, and stays curdled after you strain it and add the butter, you can probably rescue it by whizzing it in a blender or with an immersion blender.)
Bake the bars:
Pour the cooked curd over the baked crust. Bake the bars for about 20 minutes until the sides are barely puffed and the center of the bar wobbles like firm jell-o when you give it a gentle shake; it should not be wet or watery-looking (underbaked) nor should it be puffed in the center or cracking (overbaked).
Remove the bars from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes, then chill until firm, 2-3 hours. Grasp the parchment and lift the bars from the pan and onto a cutting board; peel away the parchment. Trim away the outer edges, then use a large chef’s knife to cut into 16 bars, wiping the blade clean between cuts. Just before serving, dust the tops with a bit of powdered sugar.
The bars keep well, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.