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The quest for a less-sweet lemon bar: The classic

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Every time I make one of my all-time favorite desserts, lemon bars, I’m always reminded of the insane amount of refined sugar that most recipes require. I tell myself the next time I’ll find a better recipe that uses less sugar. But when that next time comes, the same thing happens.

I mean, 3 cups of sugar for a filling? Lemon bars are supposed to be sweet, but… yuck

For that reason, I adapted Ina Garten’s recipe to create a less-sweet version that cuts out half of the sugar in the filling and half in the crust.

Using a 9×9 pan instead of a 9×13, I cut down the flour and added some almond meal in the crust, which gave it a slightly sandy, crumbly texture and subtle almond flavor that I thought was nice. I left the filling recipe doubled because I like a thicker lemon bar. When finished, they came out for me at 0.75″ thick.

You can use a food processor to speed up the crust prep. Since the butter is at room temperature, it’s also easy to make by hand, too, with a few simple tools: a bowl and a pastry cutter.

When I was a kid, I remember thinking a pastry cutter was a weird tool. We had one in our drawer taking up space but never seemed to use it for much of anything except every once in a while to chop up an egg salad… it works pretty well for that! Throw the eggs in a bowl and go to town with the pastry cutter to chop them up into little pieces. Then add mayo, chopped onions and celery, some salt and pepper, maybe some chopped fresh herbs (dill and parsley are great), and you have lunch.

If you don’t have a pastry cutter, use a fork to “mash” in the butter with the flour, or two butter knives to “cut” in the butter into the flour. Clean hands also work well for the job. When combining the butter with the flour, it might be easier to get started with a fork, then switch to your hands, using your fingertips to “pinch” the butter and flour together.

Either method you use, it’s best practice to let the crust chill before baking so the butter can re-solidify. 20-30 minutes in the freezer is typically enough time, in my experience. If you’re in a hurry and want to roll the dice, I’ve made lemon bars both with and without chilling with ok results.

I call this one “the classic” since I added a cream cheese layer for a variation on this recipe again recently. It came out great… but more on that another day. 😉

Less-sweet lemon bars: The classic
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keyword: classic dessert, creamy dessert, fruit dessert, lemon, lemon bars, light dessert, quick desserts, spring dessert, summer dessert
Servings: 9 servings
Author: Original Recipe Credit: Ina Garten
Ingredients
For the shortbread crust
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup almond meal (flour)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (at room temperature; 1 stick, if using a 1 lb. box of butter that comes with 4 sticks in it)
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • Heavy pinch of salt (about 1/8 tsp.)
For the lemon filling
  • 6 eggs
  • 1.5 cups white sugar
  • 2 tbsp lemon zest
  • 1 tbsp orange zest
  • 1/4 cup orange juice (squeezed fresh)
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (squeezed fresh)
  • 3/4 cup flour
Instructions
For the crust
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

  2. Prepare the pan: Lightly butter a 9" x 9" square metal baking pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

  3. To make the crust in a food processor: add flour, sugar, almond meal, and salt in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse to combine. Cut butter into small pieces and add to food processor bowl, pulse until mixture is just combined and small pieces of butter remain.

    To make the crust by hand: in a large bowl, add flour, sugar, almond meal, and salt. Mix to combine. Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Using a pastry cutter, a fork, or your clean hands, combine until butter is worked into flour and small pieces of butter remain.

  4. Dump out filling into the 9" x 9" square metal baking pan and shake gently to level out the crust so it is more evenly spread on the bottom of the pan. Press the crust firmly into the corners and sides, building up 1/4" around the pan. You can use a glass or measuring cup that has a flat bottom to press the crust together if needed.

  5. Bake filling until lightly golden, about 15-20 minutes. Remove and let cool about 10-15 minutes, until no longer piping hot.

For the filling
  1. In a stand mixer bowl, or in a bowl and using a hand mixer, beat eggs and sugar until sugar has dissolved.

  2. Add juices, flour, and zest, and mix until combined. The top of the mixture will be foamy. Using a rubber or silicone spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl and the bottom of the bowl and stir.

  3. Add filling to the pan after the crust has cooled, pouring slowly to not create as many bubbles on top of the filling.

  4. Return to oven and bake another 30-45 minutes. Depending on your oven, this will vary. The bars are done when the edges are set and center jiggles slightly, but is not still "soupy" in the middle.

  5. To serve: Cut into 9 squares, top with powdered sugar, or some berries.

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