Where do you buy your favorite lemon bars? Tell us in the comments.
AUSTIN, Texas — Winter is lemon's time to shine.
Citrus fruits are at their seasonal peak during the darkest, coldest part of the year, and bright yellow lemon bars can provide just the burst of joy we need to make it to warmer, sunnier days.
Since harvesting a trio of softball-sized Meyer lemons off our backyard tree in early December, I've been on a lemon bar kick, trying to find my favorite combination of sweet, tart filling and flaky, salty crust.
As much as I love straight-up neon yellow lemon bars dusted with a little powdered sugar, they always seem to be missing something. Maybe an oatmeal topping like other jam-based bars? A salty shortbread-like crust? A less cloying filling?
When I explained my conundrum to my grandmother while we were visiting Missouri, particularly that I couldn't find a good lemon bar recipe on the Internet that didn't call for sweetened condensed milk, she went straight to her pile of clipped recipes and pulled out one from Guideposts.
“This is Gaga's Internet,” she said as she handed me the recipe.
That particular recipe ended up falling a little short during my lemon bar baking escapades in recent weeks, but I'm happy to report that I've found my own personal favorite recipe that incorporates a salted shortbread crust recipe that was printed in January's Bon Appetit. (The filling for that Bon Appetit tart, which included thin lemon slices, rind and all, was too tart for even my lemon-loving palate.)
Once I'd found a solid crust recipe, I set out to try various fillings. Some called for gingerly cooking the lemon curd ahead of time in a saucepan, which I've now decided doesn't make sense for a bar that will bake for 20 to 30 minutes in an oven. Other fillings called for all egg yolks or a tablespoon of cornstarch for thickening.
I even experimented with a recipe from Deb Perelman's “Smitten Kitchen” cookbook that called for pureeing a whole lemon, rind and all, in a food processor. (That recipe also called for an entire stick of butter in the filling, which just made it too heavy for my liking.)
At a reader's suggestion, I also went down the pink lemonade bar path with blogger-turned-author Perelman, who uses pureed raspberries to turn lemon bars an irresistible shade of pink. At the end of the day, I liked the idea of pink lemonade bars better than the results, but you can find that recipe on her website, smittenkitchen.com, and try for yourself.
But playing around with raspberry juice in the filling got me thinking about grapefruits. I can think of few finer treats than a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, but because grapefruit juice is so drinkable but lemon juice is not, you can't swap grapefruit juice one-for-one in a bar recipe. (Well, you can, but it just doesn't have the kick that we've come to expect from this kind of dessert.)
My solution was to reduce the grapefruit juice by simmering twice as much as I needed in a small saucepan and then mixing one part grapefruit juice with one part lemon juice. Grapefruit juice doesn't give as much color as you think it would to the filling, but I really liked the subtle difference in flavor that comes from using half lemon juice and half reduced grapefruit juice.
Having baked my way through a dozen or so recipes in recent weeks, here are some lemon bar-making tips to help you improve your current favorite or find a new one:
• The crust and filling recipes are, for the most part, interchangeable. Perfectionists who can taste an extra half-cup of powdered sugar from a mile away might disagree, but I've found that you can mix and match the basic parts of lemon bar recipes to make your own.
For example, if you like a filling but not the crust in one recipe, try a different crust but use the same recipe for the filling, or vice versa.
• There are some really interesting recipes tweaks to the standard lemon bar recipe out there, which you could have a weekend of fun experimenting with: a little bit of lemongrass added into the filling, a handful of toasted coconuts tossed into the crust, a thin glaze made with powdered sugar and lemon juice on top of the curd, a cream cheese layer between the curd and the crust from a Mrs. Field's cookbook and a sugar cookie-like crust from Houston pastry chef Marilyn Descours.
• Make sure you bake the crust until it is a light golden brown, at least 15 or 20 minutes. If you don't bake the crust enough before adding the filling, it gets soggy and gooey underneath the curd.
• Be wary of filling recipes that call for water. I was so excited for the triple layer cream cheese lemon bar from Mrs. Field's, but the ¾ cup water in the curd recipe meant you had to cook the curd an extra long time for it to thicken. I'm also a fan of letting the oven cook the curd for you so you don't have to stand at the stove whisking until your arm hurts.
• Powdered sugar on top of any lemon bar is almost as much for looks as for taste. Sometimes, the curd turns a little brown if you overbake it, a “flaw” that is easily covered up with a little dusting of powdered sugar.
In her book, “Sweet on Texas,” Dallas-based author Denise Gee suggests putting powdered sugar in a small glass canning jar and placing a square piece of parchment paper under the metal ring. She then pokes small holes into the parchment paper to make a powdered sugar shaker.
• As you're exploring recipes, pay attention to what size baking dish the recipe calls for. A 9-by-13-inch baking dish holds about twice as much as an 8-by-8-inch dish, so you can double recipes for a bigger dish or cut them in half for a smaller one.
• If you like extra filling or crust, you could use the recipe for a filling or crust from a 9-inch-by-13-inch recipe in an 8-inch-by-8-inch pan and it will have a noticeably thicker layer or one or the other (or both), but fewer total bars.
• Zest is a key flavor-booster in these bar recipes, and a Microplane is one of the best ways to scrape just the outer layer of citrus and not the rind, but if you're not careful, you can scrape your fingers, too.
A safety tip: Instead of holding the fruit and dragging it across the Microplane, you can leave the fruit on the cutting board and turn the Microplane upside down to drag it across the fruit.
• Speaking of zest, chemicals used to grow citrus fruit are concentrated in the skin, so it's a good idea to buy organic citrus if you know you're going to be eating the zest.