Lemon Bars: They Ain’t What They Used to Be

Lemon bars have been much abused the last couple of decades. Once quite rare, they’re now a staple of coffee shops and fast-casual chains like Panera Bread and Corner Bakery. Though I wonder: are those thick yellow slabs next to the pile of fist-sized brownies really lemon bars? An argument could be made that they aren’t, primarily because the lemon-flavored stuff up on top isn’t really lemon curd. Usually it’s some sort of hyper-sweet lemon gelatin, cornstarch-thickened lemonade or (shudder) boxed lemon pudding. For shame!

However it’s too easy to lay the blame for the decline of the lemon bar at the feet of corporate restauranteurs. The quality of the American lemon bar had been sliding for years before they ever showed up. I’d argue that pop recipe writers are the ones who’ve done the most damage. Newspaper food columnists, cooking magazine editors…these are the arch conspirators behind the fall of the lemon bar, dumbing down their recipes — stuffing them with starch and quick-gelling agents in a misguided effort to spare their readers the agony of a failed curd!

Their hearts were in the right place I suppose. Curds, being custards, can fail. You can overcook them if you’re not careful. However the rewards of a silky, cool, lemony REAL curd are well worth the risks in my view. Far preferable to the wateriness of a JELL-O filling or the even the chalkiness of a real curd with flour in it (frequently added as a prophylactic against curdling). I say, if you’re going to make a lemon bar, step up and be a man about it (or a woman as the case may be). Sure there are risks, but your rewards will be great in heaven.

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