I used to have the point of view that there just wasn't much artistic creativity to be had in process of creating a lemon bar. Sure, they taste great, but I never looked at it as a type of recipe I could really play around with so much. There is a simple and delicate buttery crust, the somehow firm yet gooey lemon filling, and then a copious layer of powdered sugar which really serves no other purpose than for vanity. (Ughhh, the nerve of that powdered sugar and all its vanity...) You can control the amount of sweetness to an extent and how tart and lemony the taste is. But otherwise (aside from making my taste buds sing and dance), there just wasn't a lot of excitement in my world in regards to making lemon bars. That was until I started making them. Go figure...judging something I'd never even bothered to play with! I actually figured this out quickly when I first had to make them for work. They were nearly a completely different dessert in comparison to other lemon bars I'd enjoyed for various other cafes and bakeries. They were much thinner, firmer, and had a more subtle lemon flavor as opposed to the in-your-face, knock 'em, sock 'em lemon levels in the bars from one of my favorite coffee shops. And not that this was a bad thing, it just drew my attention to something to the fact that something so simple as a lemon bar really could become a pastry artist's palette. AND I like my lemon bars a little on the thicker side...with lots of lemon flavor!
So this particular recipe I'm using is the recipe of Ina Garten's lemon bars. You know...that lovely Barefoot Contessa from East Hampton! I'm still plotting on how to crash one of her dinner parties... I was surprised to see that her crust doesn't call for powdered sugar, which is the only kind of sugar I've ever seen in at least 8 different recipes. Just the regular ole' granulated stuff is all that's required for this crust. The lemon-juice-to-everything-else-ratio is perfect. And on top of zesting tons of fresh lemon peel, I also add lemon oil extract to the filling. It's totally optional to do this, but I REALLY love the freshness and taste of lemon, so I add it in just about every form that will work. I also baked these to fit a 12x12 inch square cake pan, whereas Ina just used a 9x13 pan. There won't be much of a difference in the end result except that my bars could be slightly thicker, but not by much. I suggest serving these at just below room temperature. The crust will sort of melt in your mouth along with the filling. But they are totally acceptable (and delicious!) to be eaten cold. It will be like sinking your teeth into a shortbread cookie with a cold lemony custard on top. Oh, the agony!
Here is Ina's Faaaaabulous recipe, with my addition of the lemon oil included!
Super Lemony Lemon Bars:
For the Crust:
- 1 C. room temperature butter (2 sticks)
- 1/2 C. granulated sugar
- 2 C. flour, sifted
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 6 eggs at room temperature
- 3 C. sugar
- 2 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
- 1 C. freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 C. flour, sifted
- 1 tsp. lemon oil/extract (optional, but will greatly enhance the lemony flavor!)
- Powdered sugar to dust over top
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare your pan with some cooking spray.
Cream together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment. (You can use a hand mixer, it will just take longer.)
2. Add in the flour and salt. Mix until just blended.
3. Grab all the dough and press together to form a ball. Press the dough down into the center of the cake pan, and then work the dough out all the way to the edges, using your finger tips. It doesn't have to be perfectly flat, but try to get it as even as possible.
4. Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, until it is very lightly browned. It may puff up in some spots which is fine. But if this bothers you, just take a fork and prick holes in the dough before baking so that the steam can escape, like you would do with par-baking a pie crust.
5. Take pan out of oven and place on cooling rack.
6. In the meantime, get your filling together by whisking together all the remaining ingredients, minus the powdered sugar. I like to whisk the eggs and sugar together in one bowl, and then mix the lemon juice, oil, and extract along with the flour in another bowl and then combine the two mixtures. I do this for two reasons. One is so that any lumps can be worked out of the flour more easily, and two is so that the lemon juice doesn't start to curdle the eggs too quickly.
7. Once mixed, pour the filling onto the crust and put back into the oven for about another half hour, or just until the filling is set.
8. Allow the bars to cool completely in the refrigerator. Then dust with the powdered sugar, cut into squares, and eat as many as you can stomach!