A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, holy-cow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making almost-classic lemon bars—with your new favorite crust.
When I was little I used to ask for lemon bars for my birthday. Not cake, not cupcakes, not pie. Lemon bars. Because our neighbor, who was a wonderful cook and baker, made the lemoniest, tartest, best lemon bars around. They were so good that, whenever we were lucky enough to have them, I'd take the whole plate and stash it away for later, to eat all myself.
I want to say I’ve changed a lot since then, but sometimes I wonder.
In college, the campus catering company also made a mean lemon bar, which would reliably appear at campus events. If such an occasion and I happened to cross paths, I attended for a few minutes, piled a plate with lemon bars, then dashed home to my mini fridge.
Which is to say, if you put a lemon bar in front of me, watch out: I am on my worst behavior. I can’t be trusted. Maybe it’s the buttery, crumbly shortbread crust or the creamy, puckery lemon curd. To me, they’re the perfect dessert.
And they have a naturally short ingredient list. Most lemon bar recipes include flour, butter, salt, lemons, sugar, and eggs. That’s it. Which makes this dessert prime Big Little Recipes material—they’re already big in flavor and little in demand.
But because each component is essential, one can only add and substitute, not trim. For instance, you could swap out the lemon—and I’ve done that—but then it’s no longer a lemon bar. Can you swap out the flour? In the crust, totally, but I wouldn’t advise thickening the curd with something dark-hued and deep-flavored, like whole-wheat or rye. What about the eggs? Maybe, but that likely would be for dietary concerns, not flavor.
But what about the butter? A few years ago, The New York Times’ Melissa Clark published Lemon Bars With Olive Oil and Sea Salt. This idea stuck with me. Only, instead of enriching the lemon curd with the olive oil, I wondered: What if we focused on the crust? After our community became smitten with Smitten Kitchen’s Olive Oil Shortbread With Rosemary & Chocolate Chunks I knew there was hope.
My initial test was more complicated than I anticipated. By the time the shortbread got crunchy, the oil started to brown. Unlike butter, which is even more flavorful when browned, oil tastes bitter and burnt. So, how to get the right texture and taste? A lower oven temperature and longer bake time did the trick, yielding an olive oily crust that’s sturdy enough to support a thick layer of lemon curd.
And when I say a thick, I mean it. When I started developing this recipe, I turned to a few tried-and-true favorites for inspiration: Yossy Arefi’s, which are inspired by Alice Medrich’s. And Tartine’s. To give you a sense of the size, here are the liquidy ingredients in each: Yossy and Alice’s versions both use 3 eggs and 1/2 cup lemon juice for an 8-inch square pan. Tartine’s uses 6 eggs plus 1 yolk and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice for a 9- by 13-inch pan.
Mine uses 6 eggs and 1 cup juice for an 8-inch square pan, which means it's roughly twice as thick—deep-dish, if you will. Because when it comes to citrus curd, I'm a big believer in more is more. From there, I toned down the sugar and bumped up the lemon zest. The result is an ultra-lemony lemon bar with a je ne sais quoi shortbread crust that makes you want to reach for a second square. And you should.
- 2 1/2 cups (320 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup (161 grams) olive oil
- 6 large eggs
- 1 3/4 cups (350 grams) sugar
- 7 tablespoons (56 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (240 grams) fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 3 lemons, zested
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
What do you think makes a great lemon bar? Tell us in the comments!