Lemon Bars: There Is an Alternative to Sickeningly Sweet Neon Goop

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 11 2012 3:40 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Lemon Bars

Lemon Bar
A lemon bar, made with the recipe below, on my favorite lemon-bar serving plate

Mito Habe-Evans for Slate

Spring demands lemon bars, those tart, portable treats perfect for a picnic or evening tea on the terrace. Sadly, too many lemon bars are, to borrow a term from Cher (the one from Clueless, of course), “Monets”: alluring from afar, but a “big old mess” once you get close. Even more disturbing, many lemon bars are (again like Monets) more expensive than they should be. Bright yellow and shiny, flaws hidden by a fine layer of powdered sugar, their visual perfection tricks people into dishing out $5.99 for them at upscale cafés and gourmet food stores. 

Once removed from their carefully lit glass cases, these pricey versions are often just heaps of gelatinous goop atop soggy, Play-Doh-like crusts. The lemon curd is sickeningly sweet, hinting at a Botox-like injection of condensed milk or a manic 1950s-potluck-inspired overdose of sugar; the dye-infused curd exhibits a frightening, Hi-Liter-hued shimmer.

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And on those rare occasions when the curd is the right mix of tart and sweet, there is almost never enough in proportion to the shortbread crust.

To be fair, at least one upscale café that gets lemon bars right (or at least they did a few years ago, when I used to frequent the place). Café Los Feliz in Los Angeles, better known for attracting screenwriters in shiny leggings and vintage grandma cardigans, creates a messy, lemon-y masterpiece, at least three-quarters tart curd, the last quarter a crumbly shortbread crust with a deliciously toasted crunch. I once asked them for their secret. “We grate lemons all day,” I was told. “Every day. Until our hands hurt.”

Lemon zest is the crucial ingredient to a successful lemon bar. That and lots of fresh lemon juice—at least 1.5 times more than outlined in most recipes. Bars from the recipe below can stop a drunk man in bunny ears at a party (really: it happened last Sunday). They can spur people who think they don’t like lemon bars to ask for the recipe. They are crazy lemony, more tart than sweet; they will momentarily shock your tongue. But don’t underestimate your friends’ capacity for lemon intensity. Who wants another sickeningly sweet concoction when lemon bars can be, in the words of Maud Lebowski, “a natural, zesty enterprise”?

No one. Or no one in their right mind, anyway. The curd-to-crust ratio in the recipe below is roughly 1.5 times what you’ll usually find; if you want to be really bold, try amping that ratio up even further. Just remember to cook them a little longer if you do.

Lemon Bars
Yield: 9 servings
Time: About 1 ½ hours, largely unattended

Butter for greasing the pan
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
6 large eggs
2¼ cups sugar
1¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons grated lemon zest

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch square pan. Combine 2 cups of the flour, the powdered sugar, and the salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal. (You can also do this in a food processor, but don’t overprocess it.) Press into the greased pan, pushing the dough all the way up the sides. Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 20 minutes, then remove and reduce the oven temperature to 315°F.

2. Meanwhile, in another large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until smooth. Gently stir in the lemon juice and zest. (To minimize aesthetically displeasing little bubbles on the top of the bars, avoid whisking further.) Fold in the remaining ½ cup flour.

3. Pour the egg mixture over the hot crust and bake until the curd is set and no longer jiggles when you move the pan, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool thoroughly before cutting into bars. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.

Previously in You’re Doing It Wrong:
Charoset
Brussels Sprouts
Macaroni and Cheese
Pizza
Hummus

Heather Murphy is a former Slate photo editor and the creator of Behold, the Photo Blog. Follow her on Twitter.