Monday, May 16, 2011

Lemon Bars

My older sister's favorite dessert growing up was lemon bars. Personally I thought they were tasty, but could take them or leave them. That is, until a few years ago, when the hubby brought home some lemon bars from a co-worker, calling them the best he'd ever tasted, and how lucky I was that they made it home for me to try (before eating them all himself).

And he was right. They were the best lemon bars I'd ever tasted. And of course, I then demanded politely requested that he get the recipe so I could try making them myself.

Turns out that the recipe is a classic Betty Crocker, and apparently has gotten mixed results from others trying it. That only made me more determined that I would conquer this recipe and claim it for my own! Considering I had never actually made lemon bars (that was always my sister's job), I convinced myself not to be intimidated and to rely on my innate baking skills to pull through.

And now a few years and many experimental batches later, I share my findings with you. Because I've seen enough bad-cooks TV shows to know that not everyone knows how to get perfect results from a slightly nebulous recipe (that probably seemed very straightforward in the time of home-ec classes and daily home cooking). First let's start with the recipe.

Lemon Bars: (verbatim from the classic Betty Crocker Cookbook)

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp grated lemon peel
2 Tbsp lemon juice

Heat oven to 350. Mix flour, butter, and powdered sugar. Press into ungreased square pan, 8x8x2in. or 9x9x2in., building up to 1/2-inch edges. Bake 20 minutes.

Beat remaining ingredients until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Pour over hot crust. Bake until no indentation remains when touched lightly in center, about 25 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cool; cut into about 1 1/2in. squares.

*Co-worker's note: I always double the recipe and use a 15x10x2in glass pan.

OK, so now let's talk about how these cooked up for me.

lovely golden brown crust
First off, I took the co-worker's advice and used a larger glass pan and doubled the recipe. However, the biggest size I had was 9x13x2in, so the crust ended up a little too thick for me. I did like the thickness of the lemon filling, though (I prefer a larger amount of filling to crust). I'm still figuring out the correct proportions, but personally I like the 1.5 times crust and 2 times filling for my sized pan.

Key points:
- the glass pan is really great, especially as you're keeping it ungreased, and I think the heat transfers better to the filling than it would with metal.

I didn't use an electric mixer = heavier & lumpier
- when the recipe says beat, it means with an electric mixer. I use an electric hand-mixer, which works great, but the first two times I tried it with my manual hand beater, and it was not nearly as smooth or light (see this picture, compared with the nice smooth, custardy filling in the picture at the top). Also, I know 3 minutes sounds like a long time, but the fluffiness is part of the key to great filling and a nice lightly crusty top.

- when "mixing" the ingredients for the crust, I always use my hands. It makes for a flakier crust, and also then your hands are all greased up for pressing the crust into the pan. If you're really squirmy about getting your hands covered in butter, you mix with a pasty blender or a fork and use waxed paper to press the crust in, but there's something about squishing the mixture through your fingers that mixes perfectly and makes you feel like a kid again.

- some recipes say to let the crust cool before pouring the filling over top. I've had great success with following this recipe and pouring it almost immediately after the crust has come out of the oven. I've never had a problem with the filling seeping into the crust.

filling just out of the oven (pre-sugaring)
- I've added powdered sugar right after they come out of the oven, and sometimes it melts into the top of the filling. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I usually end up with a second coating after they've cooled to achieve the classic powdered sugar loose topping.

- I usually can't wait for the bars to cool completely before trying some, but it really is better cooled. And I always keep them in the fridge afterwards, for preservation but also because they are so tasty when they're cold

- in a pinch you can use lemon juice concentrate. But it doesn't have nearly the same fresh, light flavor, and definitely use less of it than if you're squeezing it yourself.

- I added some lemon zest to the crust, and it added some nice flavor as well as a little change in texture. Don't overdo it, though, as you'll have plenty of lemon flavor in the filling.

- This crust is fantastic by itself, and could be shortbread cookies or a base for other pastries very easily. Plus it's so incredibly easy!

- I have a whole separate post I'm going to do for the fruit variations, but I'll preface it by saying that I tried adding strawberries to the lemon filling (strawberry lemonade I've seen it called), with varying success. Once I have my recipe to the point I'm happy with it, I'll share my discoveries. If you're crazy excited to try it right now, though, I suggest fruit chunks added at the end, instead of purée.

With that, I think you're ready to go out and try it yourselves. Let me know how it turns out for you!

1 comment:

  1. Yum, you are making me totally want lemon bars! And I LOVE the idea of fruit variations! I've never seen that before and it sounds delicious.