I woke up really really (really!) wanting lemon bars. It’s almost summer, and it’s the perfect time for a bright citrus dessert! I actually have been thinking about lemon bars since I decided to start writing this blog and made a list of recipes I wanted to share. Lemon bars were at the top of a very long list.
Creamy, sweet, with a fresh lemon taste and just a hint of tartness on a rich, buttery shortbread crust.. (uhhh..excuse me while I grab another lemon bar…)
About 2 years ago, I worked at a bakery that had the most amazing lemon bars I’ve ever had! Granted, it was the first lemon bar I’ve ever had. For some reason, I always thought they were sour and sickly sweet at the same time (sort of like the lemon filling from a bucket I’ve seen in grocery store cakes and pastries) which is why I avoided them. Thankfully (and unfortunately at the same time) that first ever lemon bar I tasted was the one to compare others to.
The filling itself was a perfect balance of sweet and tart, with a great shortbread crust. It was sooo good! Like the almond croissants, these lemon bars (and individual pineapple upside down cakes – post on this to follow soon! I promise!) were one of the things repeatedly requested for me to take home from the bakery by my family.
I have no idea what was in that lemon bar recipe and I (naively) thought that all lemon bars tasted the same. Boy was I wrong! I have tried lemon bars every time I see it offered at a bakery or cafe and each time I’m sorely disappointed. Some were way too tart, some too sweet, and there was even a lemon bar that was so gelatinous I couldn’t even bring myself to take a second bite. With all those lemon bars I’ve had (purchased or made) not one has even come close to that first one. (Wow I sound like a lemon bar snob… damn the high expectation that first lemon bar set)!
Well Aileen, you silly goose, just go back to the bakery and buy those lemon bars you love and maybe you can even ask nicely for the recipe! And I would have, except that bakery with the to-die-for lemon bars closed its doors over a year ago.
Which is why I’ve been on a mission to find the lemon bar recipe of my dreams. I’ve figured out the crust part, but the filling was never just right…
Little did I know that the filling recipe I’ve been hunting for was right under my nose (or rather in our cookbook collection) for years! I thought I would find a recipe in the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel (affiliate link) when I first bought it (great baking technique book by the way!). There were lemon tarts, lemon curd, and other lemon desserts, but no lemon bars. I never thought to look to it’s sister cookbook Ad Hoc at Home (affiliate link) also by Thomas Keller, but there it was, on page 304, between the brownies and the pecan-walnut bars.
I just knew this recipe had to be good. I mean it is by Thomas Keller after all. That being said, because it is by the renowned chef, I also expected it to be uber complicated (as many of his recipes seem, at least to me) and I imagined it calling for 5 different types of lemon with multi-step techniques, and it was, to some degree, but thankfully only for the crust (which I wasn’t planning on using).
Don’t get me wrong, I bet his recipe for the crust is delicious, but I’m a busy mom of two little ones and in order for me to keep making these (which I fully intend to do now!) I need a much more streamlined recipe. Besides, I already had a crust recipe I was really happy with. It was the filling that I was searching for, remember?
Now, if you are a lemonhead looking for the tart, extremely citrus experience, you’re probably not going to find it in this recipe. This is more of a milder lemon flavor (due to the ratio of lemon to egg) without being eggy or overly sweet. To me this strikes a perfect balance.
This lemon bar is placed in the freezer to set, unlike other bars that are baked a second time. Because of that, they need to stay frozen or refrigerated until ready to serve. They don’t do well at room temperature for very long and there’s no way to stack them unless they are frozen. (Which I do frequently – I just cut them up after they’re frozen, arrange and stack them in an airtight container with wax paper in between).
However, because they are frozen, it adds another layer of deliciousness to the lemon bars. They are best straight out of the freezer (which is the only way I eat them now!) Just imagine a creamy lemon gelato and lemon bar rolled into one…. yummy and unexpected right?
The twist (haha.. pun intended) to this lemon bar is that you can serve it with traditional powdered sugar, or if you’re feeling fancy or just want a reason to use your kitchen blowtorch, top it with meringue (recipe also included) and torch it (I love any reason to bring out my creme brûlée torch and fire it up! Anyone need me to light a candle?).
Without further ado, here is my go to (Best Ever!) Lemon Bar Recipe with Shortbread Crust and be sure to check out the entertaining tips for this recipe at the end of the post.
For the shortbread crust
- 1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter at room temperature (you can use unsalted butter in it's place, just add ¼ tsp salt)
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- lemon zest from 2 lemons
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the lemon curd filling
- 1 cup lemon juice
- 6 large whole eggs
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1¼ cups granulated sugar
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into small chunks (it's easier to cut the chunks while cold and allow to come to temperature after)
- powdered sugar for dusting
For the meringue topping (optional)
- 3 large egg whites at room temperature
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- Prepare the crust
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Line a 9x13 (or 10x10) baking pan with parchment paper, allowing some overhang in order to become handles and help remove bars from pan for cutting.
- Place the butter, sugar, flour and zest into mixing bowl. Mix on low speed just until ingredients combine and dough starts to come together. Dough should still be crumbly
- Press shortbread dough into pan and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.
- Once done, place pan on cooling rack and allow crust to cool to room temperature.
Prepare the lemon curd
- Set up the double boiler: Place some water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
- In a heatproof bowl sitting atop the saucepan with simmering water (or the top half of a double boiler), whisk together the lemon juice, whole eggs, egg yolks, and sugar.
- Keep whisking consistently until the curd thickens to the texture of custard or pudding.
- Remove bowl (or top half of double boiler from heat).
- Whisk the butter in, one piece at a time until all the butter has been incorporated.
- Strain the curd through a fine mesh sieve onto crust. [i]TIP: strain curd into another bowl first then transfer the strained curd onto the crust.[/i]
- Tilt the pan to spread the filling.
- Cut a piece of parchment the size of the pan. Spray the top of the lemon curd with non-stick cooking spray and then place the parchment directly onto the curd.
- Wrap pan tightly in plastic wrap and place in freezer at least 3-4 hours or until frozen solid.
Serving the bars
- When lemon bars are frozen solid, you can remove them from the pan and let sit 5 minutes to make cutting easier.
- Trim off edges, then cut bars to desired size.
- You can either serve at this point, or store in airtight container with wax paper or parchment in between each layer until ready to serve.
- When serving, you can either dust with powdered sugar, top with meringue.
If topping with meringue (Best to make right before serving if possible but no longer than 6 hours before)
- Beat egg whites using an electric mixer until soft peaks have formed.
- Gradually add sugar while continuing to beat with electric mixer.
- Meringue is done when stiff peaks form.
- Remove bars from freezer and arrange on platter.
- Spread (or pipe) meringue on top of all the bars.
- Torch meringue using kitchen (creme brûlée) torch. Due to the nature of the lemon bars, browning them in an oven is not recommended.
- Serve immediately.
- Make early in the week to save time, freeze overnight, then cut it up the next day and stack in tupperware, ready to serve.
- If you have the room, you can cut them up and arrange them on your platter, then wrap tightly in 2 layers of plastic wrap and keep in freezer.
- If you plan on serving it with powdered sugar, you can keep a fine mesh shaker (I have this one and love it! affiliate link) filled with powdered sugar on hand to make dusting the lemon bars (or any other recipe that is dusted in powdered sugar) easy and virtually mess free.
- If you’re feeling ambitious and want to go for the meringue, my main tip is to separate the eggs ahead of time and keep the egg whites it in a small very clean (no trace of oil) airtight container in the refrigerator. (Perfect time is when you are separating the yolks when making the curd.) I have been able to successfully top the lemon bars with meringue and keep them in the refrigerator for 4 hours. It has worked with either torching them before storing in the refrigerator or torching them immediately before serving. I personally prefer to torch them immediately before serving as I prefer the heated meringue to contrast the coolness of the lemon curd.
- If you wanted to leave these out (for a dessert bar for example), it is possible. (I do want to stress however, these bars taste best right out of the freezer, but they do still taste delicious at room temp). I suggest cutting them while frozen and allow to thaw in the refrigerator (up to a day). Dust with powdered sugar or top with meringue before serving. If they come from the freezer straight to the dessert table and are left to sit out for a while, I find that they sweat a lot (the dusted powdered sugar will dissolve quickly) and the sides ooze out a bit.