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Lemon Bars

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Yields sixteen 1-1/2-inch bars; 2-1/2 cups curd.

  • To learn more, read:
    Best-Selling Lemon Bars
  • by from Fine Cooking
    Issue 49

These bars will last several days in the refrigerator in an airtight container but are best when fresh. The recipe can be doubled. The quantities for flour and butter are given by weight (ounces) and by volume (cups or tablespoons); use either measurement.

For the shortbread:
  • 4 oz. (8 Tbs.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 Tbs. granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbs. confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2-1/4 oz. (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
  • 2-1/2 oz. (2/3 cup) cake flour
  • 1/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
For the lemon curd:
  • 1 cup fresh lemon juice (from 4 to 6 lemons)
  • 2 oz. (4 Tbs.) unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
  • 2 Tbs. heavy cream
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
To make the shortbread

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and both sugars with a hand-held mixer on medium speed (or mix by hand with a wooden spoon) until light and fluffy, about 5 min. Beat in the vanilla until thoroughly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

In a medium bowl, sift together both flours, the baking powder, and the salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly blend the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, scraping down the sides, until the flour is completely blended and the dough is homogenous.

Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a sheet of plastic. Wrap well and press down to form a 1/2-inch-thick square. Refrigerate the dough until it's firm but still pliable, about 20 min. Heat the oven to 350°F. Prepare two sheets of parchment or waxed paper, each at least 11x11 inches. If using waxed paper, grease an 8x8-inch metal or glass baking pan with butter.

When the dough is firm, unwrap it and put it between the sheets of parchment or paper. Roll the dough to an approximate square, slightly larger than 8x8 inches and about 1/4 inch thick. Remove the top sheet of parchment or paper, trim the dough with a dull knife to an 8x8-inch square, and, if using parchment, put it and the dough into an 8x8-inch baking pan. If using waxed paper, flip the dough into the greased pan and peel off the paper. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan, letting the excess parchment come up the sides (trim it to about 1 inch above the rim). The dough should be an even thickness all around but it needn't be perfectly smooth. Bake until the shortbread is light golden on top, 25 to 30 min.; in a glass pan, look for a golden brown color on the bottom. Remove the pan from the oven, but keep the heat set to 350°F as you make the lemon curd.

To make the lemon curd

In a medium saucepan, heat the lemon juice, butter, and cream to just under a boil; the butter should be melted. Remove from the heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together by hand the sugar, eggs, and yolks until combined. Whisk in a bit of the hot liquid and then gradually whisk in a bit more until it's all added. This technique, called tempering, heats the eggs slowly and gently so they don't curdle.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and heat on medium, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to keep the eggs from scrambling. Cook until the lemon curd coats the spoon thickly enough to leave a line when you draw your finger through, 5 to 8 min. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve. Stir in the salt and vanilla.

To finish

Pour the curd over the baked shortbread and smooth it evenly with a spatula, if needed. Bake until the curd has set and jiggles like firm jello, 15 to 20 min. Let cool to room temperature. Gently tug on the parchment on all sides to loosen the bars from the pan. Lift them out and onto a cutting board and refrigerate until the curd has completely set, at least 4 hours. Trim the sides for a cleaner look and cut into 16 pieces.

Cooking Fresh Cookbook
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This recipe appears in Fresh Vol. 3, a collection of more than 75 favorite Fine Cooking recipes using spring and summer's best produce.

Make Ahead Tips

Shortbread dough can be wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to two months. When you want to make lemon bars (or any other shortbread-based recipe), just let the dough thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

nutrition information (per serving):
Size : per bar; Calories (kcal): 220; Fat (g): fat g 12; Fat Calories (kcal): 110; Saturated Fat (g): sat fat g 7; Protein (g): protein g 3; Monounsaturated Fat (g): 4; Carbohydrates (g): carbs g 27; Polyunsaturated Fat (g): 1; Sodium (mg): sodium mg 95; Cholesterol (mg): cholesterol mg 110; Fiber (g): fiber g 0;

Photo: Scott Phillips

I was very surprised to see a couple of less than glowing reviews of this recipe. This is by far my favorite version, although like some other reviewers I use a different pat in shortbread dough for the crust. The curd is bright tasting. I sometimes make extra curd to have on hand. Some version of lemon bar are so sweet that the lemon flavor hardly matters. If it's a Joanne Chang recipe you may be sure it's a good one.

These should really be called Lemon Tart Bars, to avoid confusing them with the expected luscious taste of the sweet confection Lemon Squares or Lemon Bars. These have a bright unique flavor, and people who enjoy biting into lemons will die for them. Unfortunately, they weren't as universally loved as the traditional lemon squares. I placed a plate of these next to a plate of traditional lemon squares at a party. I got great compliments over them, but only a couple people went back for seconds. The traditional lemon squares vanished before the first hour. The recipe is also more demanding and creates leftover dough and egg whites. Traditional lemon squares are a great first recipe to teach your 6 year old. Very fast, safe, and easy, with little room for error. These have great room for error, from difficulties in rolling the dough to size, aligning it to the pan, potential for burning the egg mixture, and even scalding while working with hot liquids. I highly recommend trying them, but only if you and your friends like really tart "pucker-face" flavors.

I made this recipe with the crust from a different lemon squares recipe (Company's Coming). The curd is very tart, and the reactions ranged from the best puck face I've ever seen, to highly complimentary. I'd do it again! The base I used didn't hold up well with the left over pieces, though, it did get a bit soggy.

As far as the filling goes, this is the only lemon bar recipe you'll ever need. It's beyond delicious and much better than all the other lemon bar recipes I've ever tried, such as, for example, the one in the 1980's Joy of Cooking. This one is creamy and tart while the Joy of Cooking filling is gritty and cloyingly sweet. The filling is also marvelous for lemon tarts, big and small, and for lemon layer cakes. I don't use the crust included in this recipe because I dislike rolling dough. Instead, I opt for a pat-in short crust that contains a bit of whole wheat flour.

There's a reason Joanne Chang gave these a money-back guarantee! The balance of sweetness, bright lemon flavour and buttery richness is seductive. They're the dessert I get asked to make most often, and I think they're the best thing of their kind. As a bonus, the recipe is completely foolproof. One key point is not to overwork the shortbread crust in rolling it out, and to make sure that the crust is golden before pouring on the hot lemon curd. It's doesn't need to be brown, but the bottom of the bars will be crisper and more flavourful if there's some colour on the crust before the filling goes in.

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