The idea for these meyer lemon custard bars have been bouncing around in my head for a year, or since the last time meyer lemons were in season and readily available in the supermarket. I’m game for good lemon desserts anytime; but they’re especially welcome in January as a foil for the warm spices and heavy flavors many of us enjoy in the months prior. The cheerful color helps too.
These particular bars straddle the line between classic American style lemon bars and a British style lemon tart, with the ease and portability of the former and the mellow creaminess of the latter. Tastewise, this is not a face-puckering lemon bar. If you think of the difference between sorbet and ice cream, these bars are like ice cream. Cream mutes the lemon flavor but also helps it linger on the palate. Still, I’ve tried to bump up the lemon flavor as much as possible by infusing the cream with lemon zest and adding some to the crust as well.
I used meyer lemons as they’re a January treat around here, less acidic than regular lemons with a gentle floral note. (They’re thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a mandarin orange.) But if you can’t find meyer lemons in your area, regular lemons will work here too.
- For a silky smooth, glassy custard, remove all the air bubbles before placing it in the oven. After straining the custard, I like to bounce a spoon across the surface. This helps any bubbles lurking within the custard rise up to the surface and eventually pop. Keep bouncing until you don’t see any bubbles coming up anymore. You can also wave kitchen torch across the top to pop any stubborn bubbles.
- Don’t overbake the custard! Overbaking can lead to cracks and an unpleasant finished texture. Turn off the oven when there’s still a good wobble in the center and let the bars cool down slowly with the oven door cracked open. It will continue to set as it cools.
- Taste your poppyseeds and make sure they are fresh! Nothing ruins a bake like rancid seeds and poppyseeds spoil especially quickly. I store mine in the freezer.
- Lemon almond poppyseed loaf
- Lemon almond poppyseed muffins
- Lemon pie bars with strawberry meringue
- Lime poppyseed cake with hibiscus glaze
- Key lime bars with mango topping
- Lime chiffon cake
Meyer Lemon Custard Bars
A silky lemon custard on a poppy seed shortbread base, these simple yet elegant meyer lemon custard bars are a cross between American-style lemon bars and a British lemon tart.
For the infused meyer lemon cream:
- Zest of one meyer lemon
- 150g heavy cream (35%)
For the poppyseed crust:
- Zest of one meyer lemon (reserve juice for custard)
- 50g granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp (10g) poppyseeds
- 142g all-purpose flour (I used half emmer, half all-purpose)*
- 113g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 1 large egg white, lightly beaten, for egg wash (reserve yolk for filling)
For the meyer lemon custard filling:
- Zest of 1 meyer lemon
- 175g granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 5 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
- 150g meyer lemon juice, freshly squeezed (from about 3 medium meyer lemons -- zest them before juicing!)
- All of the infused cream
- Prep the oven and pan: Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle. Line an 8x8 square baking pan with two criss-crossed pieces of parchment, leaving 2-3 inches of overhang on at least two of the sides for easy removal.
- Infuse the cream: Place the zest of one meyer lemon in a small saucepan and add the heavy cream. Stir to combine. Warm the cream over medium-low heat until steaming, then remove from the heat and cover the pot. Allow the cream to infuse while you prepare the crust.
- Make the poppyseed crust: In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and the zest of one meyer lemon. Rub the zest into the sugar until fragrant and damp to release the essential oils from the rind, which will intensify the lemon flavor. Whisk in the salt, poppyseeds, and flour until well combined.
- Pour in the melted butter and stir with a fork until no spots of dry flour remain. Scatter dough across the base of the prepared pan and use your fingers or a flat bottomed cup to press into an even layer.
- Bake the crust: Bake the crust until dry and golden, 20-25 minutes. Brush a layer of egg white over the crust to help water-proof it, then cool on a wire rack while you prepare the filling. Reduce the oven temperature to 300F.
- Make the custard: Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl or large measuring jug with a spout (such as a 4-cup Pyrex).
- In a medium saucepan, combine the zest of one meyer lemon and granulated sugar. As you did with the crust, rub the zest into the sugar until fragrant and damp to release the essential oils from the rind. Whisk in the salt, followed by the eggs and egg yolk. Whisk in the lemon juice and the infused cream (no need to strain out the zest right now).
- Cook the custard mixture over medium-low heat, stirring and scraping the pan frequently with a heat-resistent spatula, until it registers 160F on a digital thermometer. Strain the custard into the prepared measuring jug. Discard the zest.
- Bounce the back of a spoon across the top of the custard to pop any air bubbles. Pour the custard into the pan. If any bubbles remain on the surface of the custard, skim them off with a spoon.
- Bake the bars: Bake until the edges of the custard are set but the center still wobbles, about 20-30 minutes. Turn off the oven and prop the oven door with a wooden spoon. Let the bars cool for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely to room temperature. Chill the bars in the refrigerator for another 1-2 hours for easiest slicing.
- Slice and serve: Use a sharp knife to slice bars into desired size (I usually do a 4x4 grid for a total of 16 bars), wiping the blade clean between cuts. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Bars are best enjoyed the day they're baked, but can be stored refrigerated up to 3 days. The crust will soften over time.
*I used half emmer flour, half all purpose for a little extra flavor and nutrition. This crust is very forgiving; you can try substituting another whole grain flour such as spelt or whole wheat, or just use all-purpose.