Food & Drink

Great lemon bars turn up the tart

Lemon zest is the crucial ingredient to a successful lemon bar.  It's also important to use lots of fresh lemon juice.
Lemon zest is the crucial ingredient to a successful lemon bar. It's also important to use lots of fresh lemon juice. SLATE

Spring demands lemon bars, those tart, portable treats perfect for a picnic or evening tea on the patio. Sadly, too many lemon bars are, to borrow a term from the movie Clueless, "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 $6 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.

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.

Lemon zest is the crucial ingredient to a successful lemon bar. That and lots of fresh lemon juice — at least 11/2 times more than outlined in most recipes. Bars from the recipe that follows can stop a drunk man in bunny ears at a party. 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. The curd-to-crust ratio in the recipe is roughly 11/2 times what you'll usually find; if you want to be really bold, try amping up that ratio even more. Just remember to cook them a little longer if you do.


Lemon bars

Butter for greasing pan

2½ cups all-purpose flour, divided

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

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square pan. Combine 2 cups flour, powdered sugar and salt in large bowl. Add butter and blend with pastry cutter or your fingers until mixture resembles coarse meal. (You can do this in a food processor, but don't overprocess it.)

Press into greased pan, pushing dough all the way up the sides.

Bake until edges are golden brown, about 20 minutes, then remove and reduce the oven temperature to 315 degrees.

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

Pour egg mixture over hot crust and bake until curd is set and no longer jiggles when you move pan, 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool thoroughly before cutting into bars. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.

Makes 9 servings.