Lemon Bars

 I have bought six pounds of flour and two pounds of sugar this week. That’s nothing new for me, a person who regularly has to explain why she needs eight pounds of butter to the cashiers at Trader Joe’s. But here on Swans Island, where there’s one lone store for all 300 residents, people want to know what on earth you’re doing with all that flour and sugar. Long story short, every person I’ve run into at TIMS now knows that there’s a baker staying down the road.

It’s not like I was trying hide it, standing waist-deep in a ditch, picking raspberries and waving at passing cars with my friend, Liz. But it’s funny how now, for the last three days, every time I walk into that little general store, the sweet cashier wants to know what I’m going to bake next. When I mentioned yesterday that I was testing my recipe for lemon bars, the she and a woman standing in line behind me simultaneously said “Ohhhh, I love lemon bars.” After I got home from the beach today, I put four on a plate and drove them over. 

Lemon Bars are one of my favorite summertime treats. Bright and lemony with a not-too-sweet shortbread crust, I don’t think there’s anything more refreshing than biting into one straight from the fridge.

And they’re super easy, too. Cut together flour, sugar, salt, and cold butter, and press the crumbly mixture into a pan. Bake that for ten minutes just to set, and let it cool while you make the filling. Rub lemon zest into sugar, and whisk in a couple of eggs and a yolk, a little melted butter, some half-and-half and a ton of lemon juice. I like to add a touch of vanilla, just to round out all the lemon. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour and the tiniest bit of salt before pouring it over the crust. Bake it for 40 minutes, just until it no longer jiggles when the pan is jostled. 

 The hardest part of making Lemon Bars is letting them cool. Once they’re out of the oven, they need to cool to room temperature. Then they need to be refrigerated for at least three hours. This will seem absolutely endless, but as far as I’m concerned, Lemon Bars should always be eaten cold. Once all that cooling and chilling is done, all that’s left to do is slice them into bars, dust them with confectioner’s sugar and eat three in rapid succession.

Lemon Bars are a classic–perfect for any occasion. Even popping into the general store in a nine year-old terry cloth bathing suit cover-up with smeared mascara and sand in your hair. My appearance aside, these sweet little bars were a hit.

I can’t help but wonder what the nice people at TIMS will think when I go in and buy four pounds of peaches tomorrow. 

 Lemon Bars
makes one 8-inch pan, about 16 bars

Shortbread Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
pinch of Kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cubed

Filling:
3 tablespoons lemon zest
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs + 1 large egg yolk, room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 tablespoons half-and-half (or heavy cream)
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt

For Topping:
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8-inch square baking dish with aluminum foil, leaving overhang at the edges. Grease foil with butter. Set aside.

Make the shortbread crust. In a large mixing bowl, mix together flour, sugar, and salt. Using a pastry blender or two forks, cut butter into dry ingredients until the largest pieces are the size of small peas. Mixture will be very crumbly and dry. Transfer mixture to prepared pan and use your fingertips to press it into one even layer on the bottom of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool on a rack while you prepare the filling.

In a large mixing bowl, combine lemon zest and sugar. Use your fingertips to rub zest into sugar until completely combined. Whisk in eggs and egg yolk one at a time, mixing completely after each addition. Whisk in melted butter, followed by half-and-half (or heavy cream), lemon juice, and vanilla. Mix in all-purpose flour and salt. Mixture will be thin. Pour filling over the shortbread crust. Bake for 40-45 minutes, tenting with foil at the 10 minute mark. Let cool completely on a rack before chilling for at least four hours.

Set a cooling rack over a piece of wax paper. Use the foil overhang to remove bars from the pan to a cutting board. Peel foil from the edges. Use a large, sharp chef’s knife to slice bars. Set bars on prepared rack. Sift confectioner’s sugar over the tops of the bars.

Serve bars immediately or refrigerate for up to three days.

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