Sunshine on a Plate, aka Very Tangy Lemon Bars

It’s funny how smells can evoke memories. Lemons do it to me, every time. Bright and sunny, with their tangy sweet fragrance, a perfectly ripe lemon brings me back to Southern California summers by my Gramma’s pool. As we left the house, headed towards the pool in the backyard, we passed by her lemon and lime trees. Smooth, glossy green leaves, this little stand of trees was sometimes fragrant with sun-warmed blossoms, sometimes allowing brief peeps of startling yellow or fresh green fruit. Some days, I would stand near them just inhaling the fragrance that drifted on the breeze. Nothing beats a lemon fresh off the tree, except something made with those same lemons. Sadly, the days of being able to pick lemons from Gramma’s trees are gone. She moved to the mountains (as did most of my family) where her lemon trees would not grow, and I moved away from home first to follow a military husband, then to Colorado to be with my second husband.

Lemons used to make the lemon barsWhenever I work with lemons, the fragrance always takes me back to those warm lazy days by the pool. Slice one open, and sudden it’s Summer again, and I’m reminded of a more relaxed time. I feel happier too (probably explained by lemon oil’s natural mood-lifting qualities), and even gloomy days seem a little brighter. So when I decided to make Alice Medrich‘s recipe Very Tangy Lemon Bars 2.0 (recipe at the end). I was at the very least pretty happy. Three beautiful lemons on a plate, sliced and then zested and juiced had released their delicious perfume into the small room that is my galley kitchen.

Everything pre-measured and ready to go, I was able to move through this recipe easily, even with a toddler running around and asking a bazillion questions (yes, bazillion is a word – ask any parent out there 😉 ). My teen-ager kept coming into the kitchen asking if they were ready yet. The worst part was waiting for the bars to completely cool before cutting them. Was the wait worth it? Completely. I know the usual way of serving lemon bars is sprinkled with powdered sugar, but we left it off, wanting to try these tart sweets as is. They live up to their name in every way! The zing of lemon hits you immediately, making your mouth water… it’s reminiscent of lemon meringue only more so. The crust is just barely sweet, and nicely crumbly and flaky, but firm enough to hold the bar with no sagging, even after being refrigerated. There’s just enough sweet to keep your face from puckering completely, but so much that you lose what should be the prominent feature – the tanginess. Everyone in my house, lemon snatching toddler included, thinks these are fantastic, and they will be made again – probably several times.

Very Tangy Lemon BarsVery Tangy Lemon Bars

adapted from Alice Medrich’s recipe in Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy

Crust
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Topping
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, from organic or unsprayed lemons, preferably
1/2 cup strained fresh lemon juice, from organic or unsprayed lemons, preferably
powdered sugar for dusting, optional

Preheat your oven to 350 deg F. Put one of your oven racks in the lower third of the oven. Line bottom and all 4 sides of an 8-inch square metal baking pan with foil.

Combine melted butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a medium bowl, then add flour and mix just until incorporated. It will be shiny, and sort of crumbly – like wet sand clumped together. Dump the dough out into the baking pan, and press evenly over the bottom, filling in to all the corners. Put it in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is fully baked, and well-browned at the edges, golden brown in the middle.

Make the topping while the crust is baking. In a large bowl, combine sugar and flour until well mixed, then whisk in eggs. Stir in the lemon juice and zest.

When the crust is baked, turn the oven down to 300 deg F. Pull out the rack with the pan still on it, and pour the topping over the crust (the sizzle as the topping hits the hot crust and sides of the pan was a fun sound). Bake for another 20-25 minutes, or until the topping jiggles just slightly in the center when you tapped the pan. Put the pan on a rack, allowing the bars to cool completely before slicing.

Use the foil liner to lift the bars out of the pan, and transfer them to a cutting board. Peel back the foil – the edges of the bars should release from the foil fairly easily. The surface of the bars may be covered in a moist foam, and if so you can lay a square of paper towel on the surface to blot it gently to reveal the zest – lay the square down, and gently sweep your fingers over it, absorbing excess moisture. Repeat with another square of paper towel as necessary. This isn’t a necessary step; I didn’t do it, and by the next morning, the foamy look was all gone – it doesn’t affect the taste as far as I can tell.

Using a long sharp knife, cut the bars into 16 squares (about 2 inches in size), or 25 squares if you want a more bite-sized portion. If you use powdered sugar, sift it over the bars just before serving. These can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for several days. Alice says the crust will soften after about three days in the refrigerator, but they will still taste good for up to a week – I don’t think they’ll last longer than three days in this house!

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