February 23, 2018
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Reconstructing the Lemon Bar
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Designing a more delicate, less cloying, lemon bar—based on some of the earliest recipes for the dessert.

Recently I came into a glut of lemons, but instead of saving them for cake or whisky or my occasional attempts at a pre-breakfast lemon water habit, it presented the perfect opportunity to give a treat I’ve never been that fond of another chance: lemon bars. In my experience, they tend to be these massive, overlysweet, curd-heavy blocks of shortbread—ubiquitous and always a bit disappointing. But I hoped that, by delving into their history, I might uncover a lemon bar that was satisfying without being overwhelming, with a pure, bright, lemon flavor.

I honestly figured the tart treat had been gracing dessert tables for ages given that the two components, shortbread and lemon curd, have been popular for eons. I can easily picture a straight-backed woman in an impractical dress spreading some curd upon a biscuit; bar form is a logical next step. While oldish, references to “bar cookies” don’t start showing up until the late 19th century, and the first for a lemon bar found thus far does not appear until the August 27, 1962, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune in a recipe submitted by Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson for its “Today’s $5 Favorite Recipe” column.

The thrifty 1960s version is paltry when compared to modern versions. As opposed to four to six eggs, at least ½ cup lemon juice, and a 9-by-13-inch pan (the norm today), her recipe uses just two eggs and three tablespoons of lemon juice, spread across a 9-by-9-inch pan.

Another recipe, from Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, brought the lemon bar to a cross-country audience. Published in 1963, the Betty Crocker version is nearly identical to Mrs. Mickelson’s, the only difference being a lack of flour for the curd in the Betty Crocker version.

After much tinkering and testing with both versions, I landed on a recipe that stays very true to Mrs. Mickelson’s but reduces the sugar and adds an additional tablespoon of lemon juice and a lightly packed tablespoon of lemon zest. The finished bars stand a scant 3/4 inch tall, with an equal amount of bright, tart curd and a sturdy yet beautifully toothsome shortbread base.

Traditionally they are served dusted with confectioner’s sugar, with which you can never go wrong, but I’ve become a fan of serving them cold with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, which cuts the sweetness even more and makes for a nice contrast to the curd.

I can also confirm they make a brilliant breakfast crumbled up and stirred into plain yogurt, as my new morning habit would attest. Lemon water be damned.

Classic Lemon Bars

Classic Lemon Bars

16 small lemon bars

Ingredients

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, separated
  • ¾ cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, loosely packed
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (if using table salt, reduce to ⅛ teaspoon)
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder

This super simple recipe comes together in under a half hour and is ready to eat after a relatively brief one-hour chill time. If you’re like me and prefer to keep the dishes to a minimum, rinse your bowl well after making the crust and use again to make the curd. I’ve made them using my stand mixer, a hand mixer, and a stalwart old wooden spoon and whisk, and prefer the hand mixer for both speed and ease. The number of servings you get is entirely dependent on preference; quarter both ways for 16 smaller bites, etc.

Recipe adapted from Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson, the Chicago Daily Tribune, August 27, 1962 (Part 3, p. 12)

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line a 9-by-9-inch pan with two strips of parchment paper cut to fit, set crosswise, and leaving an inch or two above the rim.
  2. For the shortbread crust, cream the butter and confectioner’s sugar together until well mixed and fluffy, about two minutes. Beat in 1 cup of the flour (save the 2 tablespoons for the curd) until no traces appear. Press the mixture evenly into the prepared pan, and bake for 10 minutes.
  3. While the crust is baking, make the curd. Beat the eggs and the sugar together for about one minute, then beat in the lemon juice and zest followed by the salt, baking powder, and remaining 2 tablespoons flour.
  4. Once the shortbread has been in the oven for 10 minutes, pour the curd mixture on top, tilting the pan as needed to fully cover the base. Return the pan to the oven and bake for an additional 25 minutes. Do not overbake.
  5. Let cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then use the parchment sling to remove the bars from the pan. Let cool for at least an hour in the refrigerator.
  6. Best cold or chilled.

Jessica Reed

Jessica Reed is a writer, baker, artist, and historian obsessed with the history and culture of cake. She is the author of The Baker’s Appendix (Clarkson Potter, 2017) and just left the North East Coast after 15 years for the North West Coast. She is happy to still be baking at sea level.

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