Friday, April 12, 2013

Joanne Chang's Lemon Bars

I rarely eat desserts - my weakness runs more to grease and salt (aka chips).  Having said that, I like a good dessert as much as anyone - they're just easier for me to avoid than for some people.  That's why you don't see many desserts posted on this blog, and that fact that I'm posting this one says something.

Joanne Chang is a well-known pastry chef who owns her own bakery and cafe, Flour, in Boston.  Flour has been featured in Gourmet, Food&Wine, Bon Appetit, the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Lucky Magazine, Inc. Magazine, and Boston Magazine and has received numerous Best of Boston awards.  Joanne Chang first caught my attention when I saw the article on her lemon bars in Fine Cooking  magazine a decade ago.  Her bars are extra-tart and have a thick lemon curd topping that is intensely lemony.  Just to give you an idea, her lemon curd calls for 1 cup of fresh lemon juice and 1 cup of sugar.  I recently saw another lemon bar recipe that called for 1/2 cup of lemon juice and 4 cups of sugar.  So, if you love really sweet lemon bars this is not for you.  But if you like your lemon on the tart side you really should try these bars.  I think they're the best lemon bars I've ever tried and apparently I'm not alone because this is a best seller at her bakery.

I made these recently for a family get-together because lemon always seems so spring-and-summery and because they're cut into bars so they're easy to serve a group.  They'd be perfect for your next get-together or picnic.

I wanted to pass along some of her observations about the bars.  The bars have a shortbread crust that's made with two kinds of sugar and two kinds of flour.  Granulated sugar aerates the butter and makes a lighter shortbread; confectioners' sugar dissolves quickly and makes a more tender pastry.  The all-purpose flour provides strength while the softer cake flour ensures tenderness.  The result is a great shortbread that is rich and tender and has a melt-in-your mouth quality.  (Yikes, can you tell why she's a great pastry chef?)  I had most of the ingredients on hand already but not cake flour.  I debated just going with all purpose flour but I like to make a recipe as written so I went ahead and bought it anyway.  I don't know how much of a difference it made so it's up to you whether to buy it or not.

The baking pan is line with parchment to make the bars easy to remove. If you don't have parchment paper, you can just grease the pan with butter before putting in the shortbread crust.  The bars will be a little harder to remove and the first one might end up a little squished as you wedge in a spatula, but no big deal.

The shortbread crust is baked first to a light golden brown.

There's no need to wait for the crust to cool - the hot lemon curd can be poured directly onto the hot crust.  The lemon juice, butter and cream are heated, then very gradually added to the egg/sugar mixture to prevent scrambling the eggs (this is called tempering) and cooked on the stove top until the the curd coats a spoon thickly enough to leave a line when you draw your finger through it.

(Notice the somewhat wiggly line?  The Lawyer was my hand model again and was trying to slowly draw a perfect line when he discovered the lemon curd was HOT and made a rather dramatic speed-up.)

 Although the eggs are tempered, the finished lemon curd is still strained through a fine mesh sieve to remove any cooked bits.  If you don't have a fine mesh sieve I would suggest buying one rather skipping this step.  They're not expensive, and even though I was very careful with my tempering process I still found some small bits in the sieve so it was worth it.

The cooked curd is poured over the crust and baked.  After the bars are baked, they're cooled to room temperature before refrigerating.  If you put them directly into the refrigerator the top will crack. There are several "wait times" in this recipe so think about your timing before beginning.  The butter needs to be at room temperature, the dough sits in the refrigerator for 20 minutes, the bars need to cool to room temperature for about an hour, then they're refrigerated for at least 4 hours. The recipe states that the bars will last in the refrigerator for several days in an airtight container but are best when fresh so I made mine the day of the party.

I took mine out at exactly 4 hours because we needed to leave to get to the party.  They did cut nicely but were just a little soft.  Next time I'll make them the day before serving and leave them in the refrigerator overnight, then cut them the day I plan to serve them so they have plenty of time to firm up.  I discovered that rinsing the knife under slightly warm water between cuts helped to cut more cleanly.  First you trim the sides.  (Snacks for the baker!)

Then you cut into squares.

Then you accent with a flower because you're a crazy blogger and need another picture.

Then you rush out the door to your party.  :-)

printable recipe

Joanne Chang’s Lemon Bars
Makes 16 1 ½” bars

For the shortbread:
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ oz. (½ cup) all purpose flour
2 ½ oz. (2/3 cup) cake flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt

For the lemon curd:
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from 4 to 6 lemons)
2 oz. (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the shortbread:
in a large bowl, cream together the butter and both sugars with a hand-held mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about five minutes.  Beat in the vanilla until thoroughly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl. 

In a medium bowl, sift together both flours, the baking powder, and the salt.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly blend the dry ingredients into the wet, scraping down the sides, until completely blended and homogeneous.

Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap.  Wrap well and press down to form a ½” thick square.  Refrigerate the dough until it’s firm but still pliable, about 20 minutes.  Heat the oven to 350d.  Prepare two sheets of parchment paper, each at least 11x11”.  When the dough is firm, unwrap it and put it between the sheets of parchment.  Roll the dough to an approximate square slightly larger than 8x8” and about ¼” thick.  Remove the top sheet of parchment, gently trim the dough (without cutting the bottom sheet of parchment) to an 8x8” square, and put the parchment and dough into an 8x8” baking pan.  Press the dough into the bottom of the pan, letting the excess parchment come up the sides.  Trim to about 1” above the rim.  The dough should be an even thickness but doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth.  Bake until the shortbread is light golden on top, 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven but keep the heat set to 350d.

To make the lemon curd:
In a medium saucepan, heat the lemon juice, butter, and cream to just under a boil; the butter should be melted.  Remove from the heat. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together by hand the sugar, eggs and yolks until combined.  Whisk in a bit of the hot liquid and then gradually whisk in a bit more until it’s all added.  This technique, called tempering, heats the eggs slowly and gently so they don’t curdle.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and heat on medium, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to keep the eggs from scrambling.  Cook until the lemon curd coats the spoon thickly enough to leave a line when you draw your finger though, 5 to 8 minutes.  Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve.  Stir in the salt and vanilla.

To finish:
Pour the curd over the baked shortbread and smooth it evenly with a spatula if needed.  Bake until the curd has set and jiggles like firm jello, 15 to 20 minutes.  Let cool to room temperature in the pan.  Gently tug on the parchment on all sides to loosen the bars from the pan.  Life them out and onto a cutting board and refrigerate until the curd has completely set, at least 4 hours.  Trim the sides for a cleaner look and cut into 16 pieces.


Anonymous said...

Nancy--these lemon bars are the most amazing thing I've ever tasted. It's all I can do not to keep a constant supply! Thank you so much! Robin

Faye and Yvonne said...

I've been wanting to try her lemon bar recipe! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. Sounds like it's a keeper!