Classic Lemon Bars
Lemon Bars are a classic that we return to again and again. They are one of those baked goods that seem to have always been around. But of course they do have an origination –everything does. The problem is, that with so many things in culinary history, we don’t have a truly firm grasp of the very first time someone made these. They popped up via Betty Crocker in 1963 in a book called Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. The cover shows all sorts of fairly loud and garish holiday cookies – a lot of food dye was used during that photo shoot. There are cookies that look like little carrots (bright orange) and miniature hats (white with blue frosting ribbons), vivid green spritz shamrocks and multi-hued life-preservers (no idea what else they could be called), wreathes, batons, hearts, stars, bars and simple drop cookies, too. Inside this book is a recipe for Lemon Squares. The crust is a combo of Gold Medal Flour, butter and confectioners’ sugar and the lemon topping has a scant 2 tablespoons of lemon juice! A year earlier a recipe appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune with a version with slightly more lemon juice but also the addition of baking powder in the filling and in 1958, again in the Tribune, a recipe appeared that could be called a precursor – but it included nuts. The Betty Crocker one seems to be closest to what we make today. But no matter, these are all earlier versions of a dessert bar that has captured our imagination for all of these decades.
The recipe is very easy to make. The crust is patted in. The lemon topping is whisked together, poured on top and the whole baked until done but with the topping still moist and creamy. Variations abound. Some use granulated sugar in the crust. Others melted butter. Almost all par-bake the crust to a certain extent to keep it from being soggy. The topping always includes eggs, sugar and lemon juice but proportions can vary from 2 tablespoons of juice to 2/3 cup and the sugar will vary as well. Sometimes vanilla or salt are added or baking powder or other ingredients. Most use an 8-inch pan, some a 9-inch. They don’t really bake that well in a 9×13 so those recipes are father and fewer between; the edges bake much faster than the centers, which remain too raw.
We have tried various approaches over the years and have settled on this as our go-to recipe. Melted butter makes the crust super easy, plus extra rich in texture. Turning down the heat to cook after adding the topping goes a long way to ensuring that it stays nice and creamy. If there is one thing you must do, it is to use fresh lemon juice. Not fresh squeezed and bottled. You must squeeze it yourself right before you make these. The attraction of these bars is their luscious, puckery lemon-ness and that can only be accomplished with fresh squeezed juice. Note that I do not include zest in my lemon bars as I like to keep the filling ultra-smooth. Read Tips for a variation including zest.
And don’t overlook the poppy seed variation, seen below, also in the Tips. It’s very good and always a conversation starter.
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ⅔ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Position rack in center of oven. Line an 8-inch square pan with aluminum foil and coat foil with nonstick spray; set aside.
- For the Crust: Whisk together the melted butter, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in flour just until combined. Pat into prepared pan in an even layer.
- Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or very light brown all over the crust.
- For the Filling: Best to do this while crust is baking. Whisk together the sugar and flour in a clean bowl, then whisk in the lemon juice. Whisk in the eggs one at a time until combined. When the crust is done, turn the oven down to 325°F, pour filling over crust and bake for about 18 to 22 minutes or until set. Cool pan on rack. Bars are easier to cut if chilled for at least an hour. To cut, first lift edges of foil to bring the bars up and out of the pan. Peel foil down to expose sides of bars. Cut into 16 squares. Bars are ready to serve or store refrigerated in airtight container in single layers for up to 4 days.
- Lemon zest will add even more lemon flavor to your bars – but it will also add a slightly chewy texture to the filling. If you want to max out with lemon flavor, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of very light and fluffy lemon zest (created with a Microplane) to the filling. Just whisk it in and proceed as directed.
- For Lemon Poppy Seed Bars simply add 2 teaspoons of poppy seeds to the crust along with the flour. Proceed as directed.
- You might be used to seeing Lemon Bars with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar and if that is your preference, by all means, dust away. I think it detracts from the lovely sourness of the lemons but this is simply a personal preference. Sift a layer of confectioners’ sugar on top of the bars after you have peeled away the foil but before slicing for best result.