For people who are mad for lemon desserts, like me, no lemon bar is truly bad. But some are better than others: the ones with golden-brown crusts, the ones with just the right proportion of soft filling to crunchy base, the ones with creamy fillings that taste brightly of fresh lemon. Like Beyoncé and her backup dancers, the fierce, attention-grabbing filling should be supported by a crust that performs strongly on its own – and also does a brilliant job of making the star look good.
In many traditional recipes, the filling is a thick lemon curd, a slow-cooked spread of eggs, lemons and butter. In other recipes, the filling is more like a custard, simply blended, poured onto a hot crust and baked.
I’ve made lemon bars both ways, and hoped to prove my suspicion: that in this case, the easiest route is also the best. (Let’s call it kitchen wisdom, not confirmation bias.)
I set out to forge a single recipe that could stand out at a picnic or potluck, and also sweep confidently into a dinner party in tart form.
Coconut turned out to be the booster that lifts these lemon bars above the pack. A handful of sweetened coconut added to the crust gives it just the right fattiness to set off the sharp lemon, and helps keep the crust moist and crumbly. It allowed me to reduce the sugar in the crust to a mere quarter of a cup. And it accomplishes all this without adding any noticeable flavor of coconut.
Best Lemon Bars
For the crust:
2 cups grams all-purpose flour
1 cup very cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into small chunks
1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut (see note)
1/4 cup powdered sugar, more for sprinkling
Pinch of salt
For the filling:
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch or 9-by-9-inch baking pan, preferably nonstick.
In a stand mixer or food processor, combine crust ingredients. Mix or pulse until well combined and moist clumps form. Using your hands, press mixture evenly but gently into prepared pan.
Bake crust until edges and top are light golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Rotate once for even browning.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Whisk all the ingredients together until smooth.
Pour filling over hot parbaked crust and return to the oven. Bake until filling is almost set, about 20 minutes more. (Thicker squares, baked in the 9-by-9-inch pan, will take longer.) Start checking after 15 minutes; when you give the pan a gentle shake, filling should be lightly set all over and still quivery in the very center.
Let lemon bars cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Sprinkle the top lightly and evenly with powdered sugar.
Cut into squares, diamonds or rectangles and remove from pan. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. If desired, sprinkle again with powdered sugar just before serving.
Note: To make sweetened coconut, combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar in a small pan and stir over low heat until sugar melts. Mix in 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut shreds or flakes and set aside at least 30 minutes to absorb. Drain extra syrup before adding to crust.
Yield: About 2 to 3 dozen bars, depending on pan size.