Just a simple twist on an old favorite. I love how a snip of fresh herbs spruces up just about anything. Visually, a sprinkle for garnish adds professional panache, and hidden somewhere in the dish, lends a lurking note of freshness. That goes for desserts as well.
Not that lemon bars necessarily need a lot of sprucing up. Fresh-squeezed tart juice with zest and bits of pulp suspended in a cloudy custard atop buttery shortbread never fails to hit the spot. I don’t think I’ve ever made these before, with or without thyme, nor really knew what the lemony layer on top was supposed to consist of. It’s eggs that give it that sunny color, for the most part, and the consistency of a thick gel. Most recipes advise to dust lemon bars with confectioner’s sugar, maybe to cover up the unmistakably eggy-looking crackled top. But since I’d already blended the herb into the crust, I just sprinkled some more fresh thyme on top.
It was a last-minute call to come up with this dessert and a last-minute flourish for the thyme. My friend Gino celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday last night, and I already knew someone was making an extravagant cake. Another friend was bringing cupcakes, too. I didn’t want to crowd the table with another frostinged thing. Now that the method behind making these lemon bars is down pat, I’m curious to try it out with other fruits next. What about strawberries when they arrive in June? Melons much later on in the summer? I’m thinking tart gooseberries, currants and blackberries are another viable option. We’ll see what my CSA has in store.
For now, I’ll allow that while lemons are neither local nor seasonal, somebody really struck gold when they came up with this dessert. As usual, my friends gobbled them up at lightning speed, and wondered afterward what those savory sprigs of something were on the surface.
Lemon Thyme Bars
(makes about 24)
for the crust
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
for the custard
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 3 large lemons)
finely grated zest from the 3 lemons
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1-2 tablespoons thyme leaves for garnish
To make the crust, combine the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs (or cut in butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Press mixture into a slightly greased 9 x 13″ casserole. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs and flour and gently beat with a fork until there are no lumps. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. Pour mixture on top of the baked crust and return to the oven to bake at 350 degrees for another 15 minutes, or until the top has just set. Let cool completely. For neatest results when cutting, cover and chill at least 30 minutes before cutting into squares. Sprinkle tops with thyme for garnish.
(for 24 lemon bars)
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons flour: $0.50
1/2 cup butter (at $4/lb): $1.00
4 eggs (at $4/dozen): $1.33
3 lemons: $1.00
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar: $0.25
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar: $0.45
1/4 cup milk: $0.15
4 tablespoons thyme leaves (at $2/bunch): $1.25
salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch: $0.05
Eight brownie points: While half a cup of fresh lemon juice definitely adds a good dose of Vitamin C, and a sprinkle of thyme is a great alternative to more sugar for garnish, this dish definitely has its share of sugary calories, and the shortbread crust is no less buttery than any cookie or pie pastry.
Three maple leaves: Not looking good. As lamented above, lemons come in fossil fuel-burning cargoes from California. But the good thing is that while they’re definitely the highlight flavor-wise, much of the stuff in the dessert — eggs, butter, a bit of milk — can be sourced locally.