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A Fresh Look at Lemon Bars

Pastry whiz Allison Robicelli shares her secret ingredients for updating a classic.

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As a pastry chef, I’m often asked to name my favorite ingredient, and without hesitation, I always answer “lemons.” Their sunny acidity is a brilliant foil in anything sweet, particularly in lemon bars. These simple concoctions of tangy lemon curd and tender shortbread crust are the perfect balance of sweet and tart, and I love their jewel-like shine.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a few secret ingredients that really make lemon bars sing. In the lemon curd, I use concentrated chamomile tea, which adds a floral note that really rounds out the lemon. Cornmeal gives the crust an ever-so-slightly crunchy texture to balance out the softness of the lemon curd. Finally, I finish the bars with a little sea salt, which makes all the flavors pop. These bars are a lemon lover’s dream, delicious any time of day.

Need to Know

  • The finer the cornmeal, the tenderer the crust. Not all brands of cornmeal are ground the same. Bob’s Red Mill medium grind will yield a coarser, grittier texture (which I happen to like), while a crust made with a finely ground meal like Indian Head will be a little more refined.
  • Bake the crust just until golden. It will become tough if overbaked, but underbaking can cause an unpleasant mushy layer where the curd soaks in.
  • Pour the curd close to the crust. The curd is quite thin before baking, so holding the vessel you’re pouring from an inch or two over the crust will save you from messy splashing.
  • Slice the bars in the pan and remove them with a cake server or offset spatula. Unless you have a baking pan with a removable bottom, you won’t be able to turn out the whole thing as you would a cake.
  • Use an excellent sea salt. Maldon, with its large pyramid-shaped flakes, is a favorite finishing salt, but I also like the crunchy crystals of Halen Môn, or soft, delicate La Baleine French gray sea salt.
  • Finish with the salt and confectioners’ sugar just before serving. Otherwise they’ll dissolve into the curd.
  • Play with the flavor. Any tea that you might serve with lemon will work in place of the chamomile. You could also spread about 1-1/2 cups of chopped nuts over the crust before you pour the curd on top. I especially like untoasted pine nuts, which don’t need to be chopped.

Key steps to making lemon bars

Evenly press the dough into the bottom of the pan. Bake until golden on top, 20 to 25 minutes.

Pour the lemon curd on top of the crust, and bake until the curd jiggles like jello when the pan is nudged, 10 to 15 minutes.

Cool completely and cut into bars. Just before serving, dust with powdered sugar, and finish with flaky sea salt.


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