Recipe Box: Lemon Cream Bars

lemon cream bars
Lemon Cream Bars
I love the days leading up to Thanksgiving so much. The excitement that surrounds the holidays is just starting to come to a simmer, and my mind is buzzing with craft projects, recipes to try, friends to visit, gifts to give and parties to throw. And of course, there's the week-long Thanksgiving cook-a-thon and obligatory food coma that follows. But there's one great thing that always seems to fall through the cracks. It becomes lost beneath the barrage of pumpkin pies, turkey dinners and mega sales. It's citrus. Clementines, Meyer lemons, kaffir limes, minneolas, ruby red grapefruits! They all are starting to make appearances in the produce section of the grocery store. And since it's Thanksgiving, the right thing to do is to bask in the season's bounty, right? Lemons and tangerines have just as much right to be heralded in the fall flavor line-up as, say, chestnuts (most aren't even grown in the US anymore, by the way) and cranberries (just about as local as a naval orange, here in Kentucky). In fact, traditional Thanksgiving foods we eat today weren't anything like what the Pilgrims ate, so what's it gonna hurt to add a few lemons to the mix? Tangy and rich lemon cream bars, to be precise, with a cream cheese filling scented with fresh lemon zest, sandwiched between a buttery shortbread crust and crumb topping. Get into it.

lemon cream bars

Lemon Cream Bars
Shortbread crust and crumb topping:
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
Zest of one lemon*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13 baking dish with aluminum foil and coated with a butter to prevent sticking. Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, salt and lemon zest in a large bowl. Whisk together to incorporate. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter, a few tablespoons at a time until the mixture resembles small pebble-sized crumbs. Add egg and stir with a fork, until the egg is fully incorporated. The crust dough will just barely come together when pressed with your hands, but will still be loose and crumbly. Pour half of the mixture into lined baking dish (reserve the other half for the crumb topping). Using your hands, spread out the mixture evenly and press to form a firm layer. Bake for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, whip up the filling.

Lemon cream filling:
1 8 oz package of cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp heavy cream
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
Juice and zest of one lemon*
Confectioner's sugar for dusting (optional)

Combine ingredients in the bowl of an electric stand mixer and using the paddle attachment, beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Occasionally scrape down the sides of the bowl.

To assemble, pour an even layer of filling onto the prebaked crust. Sprinkle the top with the remaining shortbread crust mixture. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove and let cool, then refrigerate for two hours. Dust with confectioner's sugar and cut into squares. Enjoy with a cup of tea.

*I like to use Meyer lemons, whenever they are available. They are less tart and more sweet than regular lemons. Because they aren't as acidic, they pair nicely with rich, creamy desserts, but I think they'd also be excellent sliced and roasted along side poultry or fennel.

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