A week ago, I had a different world view: our education system is badly in need of an overhaul; babies should wear hats with animal ears; all people should be able to get married; Nicki Minaj is the worst American Idol judge ever; and fruit desserts are just okay. Little did I know that my life would change when I was graciously gifted with 6 bright, beautiful Meyer lemons by a friend. Oh, don’t worry– the first 4 definitely still hold true, but my view of fruit desserts has been forever altered, thanks to these Meyer Lemon-Brown Butter Bars. It’s not that I mind fruit desserts, but they are rarely on the top of my list; I generally prefer to toil in the depths of rich, luxurious chocolate or gooey caramel. For me, very few desserts hold a candle to either of these confectionary godsends. However, the acquisition of the Meyer lemons inspired me to branch out and try something new. I’ve always shied away from buying Meyer lemons because the ones I find in the grocery store are usually too soft, or sometimes even squishy. (Why it never occurred to me to procure some at the Farmers’ Market is beyond me, but it was simply never my top priority.) As my precious lemons were firm, fragrant, and a gorgeous bright yellow, I was determined to put them to good use. How is the Meyer different from the common lemon, you ask? Meyers are sweeter because they are actually a hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange, which I presume accounts for their slightly darker exterior color as well.
I’ve never made lemon bars before… possibly, I’ve never made lemon anything before. (Wha?!) So where to begin? I love collecting baking books and discovering new blogs, and there were so many recipes to choose from, which means… there were so many recipes to choose from. I suppose that’s the downside to having a plethora of cookbooks– it’s hard to know what you have! (Definitely a first world problem…) I found quite a few promising ones, most of which seemed pretty easy: make a pressed shortbread crust, mix up the lemony filling, pour over the crust, and bake. But then… I found Joanne Chang’s recipe for Lemon Lust Bars in the wonderful Flour Bakery + Cafe cookbook, and the search promptly ended. (They’re called *lust* bars, for the love of god.) I learned about Flour on the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay years ago, and made a beeline for this fabulous Boston bakery at my earliest opportunity. I fell in love with the place immediately and have visited on every Boston trip since. (One of these days I’ll tackle their famous sticky buns!)
This lemon bar recipe differed slightly from the others, in that it entails making a lemon curd, which is then piled thickly on top of a rolled out crust. Now, it’s quite possible that I am the world’s slooooowwwwest person in the kitchen, so I knew this recipe would take me a while, what with the dozen lemons to juice and eggs to crack. It did, in fact, take me forever to do the mise en place (ingredient preparation), but it was very well worth my time. I had 6 Meyer lemons in my possession, and after checking 2 stores for more of them and coming up empty-handed, I had little choice but to supplement with regular lemons. The curd was thick and luscious with a pleasing sweet/tart flavor and indulgent mouthfeel. The recipe contains heavy cream, which, as you well know, makes everything better. YUM– and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a lemon fanatic. I could tell the curd would be perfect for these bars, and it would double beautifully as a cupcake filling!
To cut down on the time, I made a modification to the crust dough: it seemed unnecessary to me to roll out a dough that would then be placed inside a baking pan, so I decided to press the dough directly into the pan, then chill the whole thing in the fridge. This seemed to be successful, as the crust was crisp and didn’t fall apart, and yet it retained a delicate, buttery texture. Secondly, I made one other change (which probably cancelled out the time saved by not rolling out the dough, but let’s not focus on the negative): I browned the butter. In the course of my intensive lemon bar recipe quest, I came across many shortbread recipes that called for browning the butter, and I thought this would be utterly splendid with the lemon curd. It not only added a layer of flavor complexity, but also gave the shortbread a deeper golden hue and an appealing speckled appearance due to the browned butter bits. This shortbread shattered one more long-held belief: Up until now, I have always thought that there is nothing more wonderfully intoxicating than the scent of good vanilla; I was wrong. The warmth, nuttiness, and caramelesque aroma of brown butter invades every fiber of my being when I breathe it in…. *shiver*
A few tips for success with this recipe:
- The original recipe calls for 2 sticks of butter; if you decide to brown the butter as I did, add 2 extra tablespoons, as some will burn off. Also, I left behind the blackened bits, so I figured that about 2 tablespoons or so had been displaced. (The increased amount is accounted for in my ingredient list.)
- The book gives both weight and volume measurements for the ingredients. I always recommend using weight when available, as it is more accurate, though I don’t bother doing so with butter or fractions of teaspoons/tablespoons.
- Leave the cake pan in the fridge to chill for well beyond the minimum 4 hours before attempting to remove and cut the lemon bars. (You might even consider sticking the pan in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to facilitate removal and cutting of the bars.)
This recipe looks inexplicably long; however, it is really not terribly complicated or difficult. I urge you not to be turned off to it because of the length, as these bars are really quite worth the effort. They are a bit on the delicate side in terms of cutting or transporting because the curd is just barely set, so they must be handled with care– no stacking! But more importantly, the bars present a wonderful contrast of soft, gooey, zingy lemon that melts into the delightful crumble of the brown butter shortbread. I’m sort of dreaming about them right now…
So, this has been a long winter for many people– Punxsutawney Phil may have some serious self-reflection to do between now and next Groundhog Day! I feel a little guilty, living in California, with our beautiful, warm weather and blooming spring trees, so I offer the rest of you poor, snow-weary souls these little rays of bright, glorious, lemony sunshine as a reminder that spring will be here soon. 🙂
Meyer Lemon-Brown Butter Bars
Adapted from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe
Makes 20-30 bars
These bars pack a lemony wallop– in the best possible way. I personally found that more than one bar was a little too much pucker for me, but I probably have a low tolerance! The lemon curd layer is thick and rich, beautifully complemented by the nutty, buttery shortbread underneath. Their flavor is complex, yet unpretentious, and they are lovely for most any dessert occasion, especially in the spring or summer. The recipe calls for regular lemons, but feel free to substitute Meyer lemons for a slightly less tart curd; I used 6 of each.
For the shortbread crust:
- 18 tablespoons (2 ¼ sticks/256 grams) unsalted butter**, cut into cubes
- 1 cup (140 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (120 grams) cake flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
**If you are not browning the butter, use 16 tablespoons, at room temperature
For the lemon layer:
- 1 recipe Super Lemon Curd
Place the butter cubes in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. As the butter melts, stir it occasionally with a spatula. The butter will turn clear, start bubbling, and develop a layer of foam on the top. The foam will thin out and the butter will gradually turn darker, developing tiny browned bits on the bottom. Keep moving the butter around the pan from time to time to ensure even browning. Do NOT turn your back on the butter– it will go from browned to burned in a matter of seconds. When the butter is a light brown color and your kitchen is permeated by that heavenly brown butter aroma, remove the pan from the heat and pour the butter into a small bowl. The entire browning process takes approximately 10 minutes. Let the butter cool slightly, then place the bowl in the fridge or freezer to firm up to a solid state.
When your butter has hardened, it will be a light brown color with a layer of blackish sediment on the bottom of the bowl. Remove the butter from the bowl (mine popped out in one solid piece) and cut it into ½-inch cubes. I recommend scraping the black bits off– I did this by flipping over the butter and running a knife underneath the black portion to cut off a thin layer of the butter. Discard the burnt butter and cut the rest into cubes. Allow the butter chunks to come to room temperature.
Combine the two flours, baking powder, and salt and sift together into a medium bowl; set aside.
When your butter has softened, place the cubes in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream it together with the granulated sugar and confectioners’ sugar on medium speed for about 3-5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Beat in the egg yolk and vanilla on medium speed for about 1 minute, or until thoroughly combined. Scrape the bowl and paddle again and beat the mixture for a few seconds to make sure everything is evenly mixed.
With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the flour mixture and beat for about 15 seconds, or until the dry ingredients are fully incorporated and the dough is evenly mixed. Do not over-mix. Scrape down the bowl a final time to make sure all of the flour mixture is absorbed.
Line a 9″ x 13″ cake pan with parchment paper so that it hangs over the long sides of the pan. Turn the dough out onto a work surface; it will be soft and crumbly. Gently form the dough into a ball with your hands (it should come together pretty easily) and place into the cake pan. Flatten the dough into a disk and press it out to the edges of the pan in an even layer. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to chill for about 30 minutes.
Preheat an oven to 350°F and place a baking rack in the center position.
While the dough ischilling, make the lemon curd. If you have made it ahead of time, take it out of the fridge to warm up slightly at room temperature.
Place the baking pan with the chilled crust in the oven and bake for about 20-23 minutes, or until the shortbread is golden brown. (It will be speckled with tasty brown butter bits!) Remove the pan from the oven and pour the lemon curd over it. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the filling evenly over the crust to the edges and corners of the pan.
Place the pan back in the oven and bake for another 15-25 minutes. The curd should be set, but still jiggly in the center (like jello); this part was tricky for me– the very edges were bubbly and much firmer, while the middle still looked very loose. I took the pan out after 25 minutes (a little longer than the recommended baking time), and I was relieved to see that it set further while cooling. Let the lemon bars cool to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least 4 hours or overnight. Given my forthcoming results, I would strongly recommend chilling overnight…
Getting the bars out of the pan was the hard part for me– all seemed well until this step! When the lemon curd is set, carefully pull up both sides of the overhanging parchment paper to loosen the bars from the pan; if the edges of the pastry are stuck to the metal, slide a knife between it and the sides of the pan. Pull the giant “bar” up and out of the pan and place onto a work surface for cutting. This sounds simple enough, except that as I tried to transfer it out of the pan, I felt the crust snap, and it eventually buckled completely…
Pretty sure this wasn’t supposed to happen…
It appears that perhaps my filling was too soft, which could be due to one of the following: I didn’t cook the curd long enough, I didn’t bake the bars long enough, or I didn’t chill them long enough. I suspect it was the latter. At any rate, the good news is that all was not lost! I was able to cut off the jagged edges (scrumptious scraps!) and salvage most of my squares. Hopefully you will not experience lemon bar destruction; if you manage to get the bars out of the pan in one solid piece, proceed to cutting 20-30 bars, depending on your desired size. The curd is very soft; wipe your knife after every couple of cuts for the cleanest edges. Next time, I will probably put my pan in the freezer for 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove and cut the bars.
The bars can be stored in a single layer in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Make ahead: Both the crust dough and lemon curd can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to assemble and bake.
- Dough: Press into the pan and store in the fridge for up to 4 days. Let it warm up slightly at room temperature before baking. Alternatively, shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic for freezer storage (up to 1 month). Let the frozen dough thaw overnight in the fridge, then let it soften at room temperature until soft enough to press into the pan.
- Lemon curd: Can be made up to 4 days ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If using chilled curd, add 5-6 minutes to the baking time, or allow the curd to warm up a bit at room temperature before baking.
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.