30 June 2011

Double Take: David Lebovitz's Whole Lemon Bars

Are you ready for this?

I think I should rename this post: Not All Lemons Are Created Equal.

About six months after I started my job, one of my coworkers went on a Lemon Bar making binge. He wanted to find the perfect recipe that wasn’t too sweet, and had the right amount of tart. Perhaps binge is the wrong word since he only made two batches before giving up. I’d completely forgotten about it until 8 months later when I read David Lebovitz’s post on Whole Lemon Bars. David did go on a Lemon Bar making binge for us and came up with the perfect recipe. And since Tabitha loves lemon bars too, I knew we had to make this recipe.

Right now we have a shared google document where we keep the recipes we are interested in making for our Double Takes. Every six weeks or so we each pick out some recipes, decide the date we are going to blog about them, and go about making them on our own time. In the past month, we have both broken from this routine and made recipes that were not on our official “To Make” list. I made the lime bars early, and then Tabitha made these Whole Lemon Bars early. Each of us were excited about the bars we made, and that has inspired the other person to make them “off schedule” as well. Tabitha raved about these lemon bars. So when Bender and I were invited to a cookout, I decided these would make an excellent addition to the festivities.

It appears that this much pith is too much pith. 

I left work early one Friday afternoon. I picked up a bag of lemons (the only ingredient I was missing) and set about making them. The shortbread came together quickly, and the filling came together even faster. I had them out of the oven in no time at all. Then I found out that the cookout that night would not come to fruition, but we had another cookout the following evening so I wasn’t worried. The plan was to go canoeing down the Saale and then meet up in the park afterwards for food and fun. But Bender and I were exhausted by the day’s festivities and decided we’d have to have a cookout another night. So the eating of the bars was put off again. The Dude came over Sunday for gumbo. Once the gumbo had settled, we dug into the lemon bars.

Not so pour-able batter.

Lemon Bars
One 8-inch pan
David Lebovitz’s notes: Because you’re using the whole lemon, use an unsprayed or organic lemon. Some grouse about the price of organic produce, but Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world and my lemon was just 30 cents, and at the pricey health food store at that.

I initially experimented with a Meyer lemon so this recipe would certainly work with one, although in the end I preferred the bars made with regular lemons. (If you try it with a Meyer lemon, it might want to reduce the sugar in the topping, but I used up my sole Meyer lemon so was unable to give it another go.) Lemons vary in size: mine was 6 ounces (175g), but getting it close is reasonable enough.

1 cup (140g) flour
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (115g) melted unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Lemon Topping:
1 lemon, organic or unsprayed, pith removed
1 cup (200g) sugar
3 tablespoons (45ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 large eggs, room temperature
4 teaspoons corn starch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (45g) melted unsalted butter
Optional: powdered sugar, for serving

Once baked shortbread.


Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Overturn an 8-inch square pan on the counter and wrap the outside snugly with foil, shiny side up. Remove the foil, turn the pan over, and fit the foil into the pan, pressing to nudge the foil into the corners. The smooth it as best you can.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, 1/4 cup (50g) sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 8 tablespoons (115g) melted butter, and vanilla, stirring just until smooth. Smooth the batter into the bottom of the pan, using your hands or a small offset spatula to get it as level as possible. Bake the crust for 25 minutes, or until it’s a deep-golden brown.

While the crust is cooking, cut the lemon in half, remove the seeds, and cut the lemon into chunks. Put the chunks of lemon in a food processor or blender along with the sugar and lemon juice, and let it run until the lemon is completely broken up. Add the eggs, corn starch, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 3 tablespoons (45g) melted butter, and blend until almost smooth. (A few tiny bits of lemon pieces are normal and encouraged.)

When the crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat of the oven to 300ºF (150ºC). Pour the lemon filling over the hot crust and bake for 25 minutes or just until the filling stops jiggling and is barely set.

Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Once cool, carefully lift out the bars grasping the foil. Cut the bars into squares or rectangles. Sift powdered sugar over the top just before serving, if desired.

Storage: The bars will keep in an airtight container at room temperature up to three days. You can freeze the lemon bars as well for up to one month, letting them come to room temperature before serving.

So pretty and unassuming. 

And then I learned that not all lemons are created equal.

There was a pause as we all looking around at each other with facial expressions that seemed to say, “Are you tasting what I’m tasting? ‘Cuz this is horrid.” The Dude tried to brush it off by telling me that it was statistically time for me to make something he didn’t like. We each finished off our piece, but a week later all of the other pieces are still sitting in the fridge, untouched.

And the problem? They were incredibly bitter. When you were able to think past the bitter, the bars were spot on, but oh, the bitterness. It was incredibly difficult to get past. 

I went through the comments on David Lebovitz's blog post about these bars and discovered that other readers had had the same issue. Like me, they did not want to give up on the bars since everyone else was giving the bars rave reviews. Their solution: remove the pith. So, in the future folks, I'll be removing a big chunk of the pith before whirring up these bars. 

With the 4th of July celebrations just around the corner, give these bars a whirl for your cookout! Just remove the pith if you are worried about bitterness!

Um. Yuck: 2 votes.
I-must-try-it-again-but-will-remove-the-pith-in-the-future: 1 vote

Head on over to Double the Garlic to see how Tabitha's Whole Lemon Bars turned out! 


  1. This might sound very analytical but did you happen to measure the pith thickness? I wonder if there's a greater pith to pulp ratio than the lemons here. If you get a chance to measure it, let me know and I'll measure a couple here. I'll even measure 3 if you want statistics...heehee. If the pith is twice as thick there, maybe using only half the pith would be a good idea. I don't know a way to measure if the pith itself is more bitter though. Do you?

  2. Oh, I'm glad you left the bitter end for last, and sorry it didn't turn out as planned! But the joy of cooking is ingredients forgive (and sometimes not at too great a cost either!). Well done for the pursuit of perfection.

  3. @ Tabitha: An engineer analytical? For shame! Prebaking, I had no idea I needed to measure the pith, so that definitely didn't happen. And unfortunately there is no scale bar in my picture. If I try them again, I'll put a penny in the picture for scale!

    @ Kitchen Butterfly: Thanks! I think these bars have definite potential, it's just difficult to tell how bitter a pith is by looking at it!

  4. One of those learning experiences from baking. I just wish they didn't turn out so time consuming, dissapointing and expensive on the occasion they do happen!

    I must say, I find it fascinating to read on people's blogs about all the different lemon varietals that seem to be available, and the unique taste the impart. You can only buy one variety of lemon in SA: unnamed lemon :-) Ah well, better a choice than no choice at all!

    P.S. What a good idea, turning the oven on and off! I would never have thought of doing that!

  5. What a great learning opportunity this was. The next time will be even better.


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