Southern Belle Lemon Bars

It was an innocent enough text, sent to me by my BFF: “Do you make lemon bars?”

And that began our annual tradition of me making lemon bars as Ruthanne’s special homemade birthday treat. The first batch was a simple Martha Stewart recipe I found online, but as I’ve already noted in another post, I cannot leave well enough alone. No disrespect to Martha, but Ruthanne is usually doing one or another version of low-carb eating, so for her, I’ve scaled back some of the flour in favor of almond flour. And I’ve cut back on the sugar as well, which really allows the fresh-squeezed lemon to take (nearly) full credit for the deliciousness these squares bring to spring.

But it isn’t the almond in the crust or the skimping on sugar that really makes these different. My secret weapon is a little known ingredient called Fiori di Sicilia.

This ingredient adds a memorable touch to baked goods. Look for it in specialty stores or online from King Arthur Flour.

You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I’ll bet you’d recognize the flavor. It’s an Italian specialty extract, and tastes like Meyer lemon, oranges and vanilla. Kind of like a creamsicle, one of my favorite ice cream treats of childhood. Fiori di Sicilia is the special flavor that makes panettone tastes like panettone. And today, it will bring a unique twist to these lemon bars for our Kentucky Derby Preview.

So there you have it. My secret lemon bar ingredient is out. I considered naming this dessert “Ruthanne’s Favorite Lemon Bars,” but this secret is pretty delicious. And if this post were to go viral—well, I’m not sure she’s ready for that kind of attention.

Ingredients

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting

1/4 tsp. sea salt

1/2 cup all-purpose flour (measure by fluffing, sprinkling and leveling)

1/2 cup very fine almond flour

4 large egg yolks

1 can sweetened condensed milk

3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 good size lemons)

Zest of one lemon (organic is best)

A few drops Fiori di Sicilia* (a little goes a long way)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides, and butter the paper for easy release when the bars are done.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Add flour and almond flour, and mix on low just until combined. Scrape down bowl a couple of times to ensure even mixing. Press dough into the bottom and 1/2 inch up sides of prepared pan. This might be tricky because the almond flour isn’t as stiff as all-purpose flour—if your fingers stick, either sprinkle a bit of flour over the mixture to act as a buffer, or put the whole pan in the fridge 20 minutes and try again. Prick all over the surface with a fork. Bake until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together yolks, condensed milk and lemon juice until smooth. Whisk in Fiori di Sicilia. Allow crust to cool about 5 minutes, then gently pour lemon filling over crust in pan, return to oven and bake until filling is set, about 25 to 30 minutes. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely.

Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until filling is firm, at least 2 hours. Using paper overhang, lift cake onto a work surface; cut into 9 or 16 squares, and dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

I trimmed the slightly overdone edges. No harm, no foul!

*Catering tip:

Cutting the lemon bars neatly can be a fussy task. Do what the pros do—use a very sharp knife, run it under warm water before you begin, and wipe blade clean with a damp kitchen towel before you begin and between cuts. The filling won’t accumulate on the blade, so it won’t transfer back onto the lemon bars.

Unless you have the special sugar that baking professionals use, it’s likely that your dusting of powdered sugar will melt into the lemon bars. For prettiest presentation, dust them just before serving.

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