Summer vacation (for me) is almost over for me. I’m okay with that. I think of vacation as a time to relax, regroup, and reorganize for the coming (rest of the) year. Every year when I come home from vacation, I’m totally psyched for fall. Fall is my season; I love – rather, am in love – with the weather, the scent, the crispness, the mindset, the everything of autumn. I love the chill the air takes in the afternoon. I see kids back in school and I wish I were there also (nerd alert). As much as I enjoy summer for what it is, I find myself getting restless for cooler temperatures. The only drawback I can think of about the return of fall is this: I cease to make things from lemons.
I don’t know what it is with me. It’s not as if lemons become unavailable to me – they don’t – but I just can’t make desserts with them anymore. They’re such a spring/summer flavor, and I’m typically infatuated with things like pumpkins and spices and pecans and other fall-ishness; lemons just don’t quite fit into that set of flavors.
So I felt I needed to make a supremely lemon dessert for you, and for me, before I start to tuck lemon recipes away in my mind for next spring. Each year I try out a new one, inevitably I love it, and it gets added to the rotation. earlier this year I made these lemon buttermilk cookies, which were a lovely and subtle way to showcase one of my favorite fruits in a cookie. Now, though, it’s time to let them go crazy.
Because I’m stuck in seasonal limbo right now, not knowing whether to savor the rest of summer or anxiously await the fall, I give you these bars, which are a little of both. Lemons to remind you of the best of summer; of pools and sun and beach and heat. Earl Grey tea to remind you that chillier temperatures and fallen leaves are on their way soon enough.
I found this recipe as I was wandering through the July Cooking Light Magazine, as I often do. I’m a magazine addict of sorts, and Cooking Light is one of my favorites for healthy recipes and for inspiration; it’s packed with good food ideas every month, but my mind gets especially blown during the summer and fall seasons. Truth be told, I think their minds get blown while writing it during those months due to all the fresh seasonal produce they have to work with. I don’t blame them.
When I first tried this recipe, I wasn’t thrilled with the results. Maybe it was me. It was one of the first things I cooked in my vacation kitchen, and I didn’t have my bearings yet. When you spend a good portion of your time cooking or baking, you unconsciously develop a sort of rhythm in your own kitchen. You don’t think about it, it’s not an obvious thing, but it’s a dance you do over and over again, and it’s part of you. I forget that, no matter how well-stocked and well-planned the kitchen I enter, it’s not mine, and it throws me off for a second. I thought my semi-failed lemon bars were a casualty of that. After going over the original recipe, I wasn’t so sure. The crust was delicious and a total flavor and textural success. I just didn’t love the lemon filling the way I should have. It wasn’t me; it was the ingredients. Something was off.
So rather than give you something I wasn’t thrilled with, I’m giving you something I’ve always been thrilled with; the most perfect lemon bar filling recipe ever, taken from the Williams Sonoma Essentials of Baking Cookbook. I’ve used it for tarts, for bars, for sandwiching between cakes layers, and I’ve used it forever. This time, I steeped some of the tea in the lemon juice to add an additional level brightness to the filling and to complement the crust.
Result: success! And a delightful way to celebrate summer. The chilled filling sets beautifully and tastes like cold lemon candy. I will warn you, however; the crust would still be considered “light,” but the filling, I suspect, is far from it. Balance is good, right? Right. Now go indulge in these while you still can. The days are getting shorter already.
Vacation update: I’m in my last week of holiday, and we’ve been taking it easy.
We had a lazy brunch at Upper Crust Bakery + Cafe, a tiny little French-inspired bakery in historic Venice, Florida. Seems as though their website is under construction, but I’ll link to it when they have it up and running. It looked like this, and it had beautiful wood floors and was perfect for four generations of women – my grandma, my mom, me, and my Wee One – to sit and chat.
The Wee One especially enjoyed herself.
I went back and got some scones yesterday from the same bakery which were larger than my face. They are to. die. for. I’m eating one right now as I type this. We came home with raspberry, blueberry (mine!) and a tropical one. I will be headed back for the other flavors before I depart. Because they are like scone balloons; light as a feather to eat, although they weigh maybe 8 pounds apiece when you’re carrying them.
Also, we took in some sailboats coming in as the day ended. Nothing wrong with a little sailboat stalking. I say if you own a beautiful sailboat, be prepared for people like me to gawk in adoration and envy. Fair warning.
Lemon filling adapted from Williams Sonoma Essentials of Baking: Recipes and Techniques for Successful Home Baking. I have the original edition of the book, and my mom has the revised edition (currently offered). The lemon filling recipe is (thankfully) in both versions.
Earl Grey Tea + Lemon Bars
for the crust:
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup powdered sugar
- 2 Earl Grey tea bags, divided
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
for the filling:
- 3 large eggs, plus 3 large egg yolks
- 3/4 cup fresh lemon juice, strained (from 5-6 lemons)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 2 Earl Grey tea bags, for steeping in lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line an 8-inch square glass (or metal) baking pan with foil that extends 2 inches beyond 2 sides; you’ll use these sides for handles when you lift out the crust. Coat foil with cooking spray.
Combine flour, powdered sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons tea leaves from 2 tea bags (discard remaining tea in bag), and salt in the bowl of a food processor; pulse until well mixed.
Add in your butter cubes and pulse until mixture is damp and looks like coarse crumbs or slightly wet sand. Alternatively, if you don’t have a food processor, you can cut the butter into your dry ingredients with a pastry blender or two knives. Press evenly into bottom only of prepared pan (not up the sides, please). Bake at 350° for 16-18 minutes or until very lightly browned. Remove from over and place on rack to cool slightly while you make your filling.
Reduce your oven temperature to 325˚F.
make your lemon filling:
In the top of a double boiler (or using a heatproof bowl over a saucepan), whisk together the whole eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and lemon juice until the sugar dissolves. Place over barely simmering water, being sure to not let the bottom of your bowl touch the water, and add the butter pieces and zest. Using a large spoon, stir constantly until the butter melts, everything is homogenous, and the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and registers 160˚F on an instant-read thermometer, 12-14 minutes. Remove bowl from over the simmering water and let cool for about 10 minutes.
After it has cooled slightly, give it another stir or two and pour it into the prepared crust. Bake until center is just set, 15-17 minutes. Remove from over and transfer to a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes, then cover tightly and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight. Remember, the filling will thicken further as it cools.
Using a thin-bladed, sharp knife, cut into squares just prior to serving. Keep a damp towel on-hand to wipe the knife after each slice; you’ll clean off the excess filling and it goes a long way to give you a clean slice. If you wish, cut into squares several hours before and then return to the fridge to stay chilled and set until serving.