I will never claim to be a fan of big surprises or intense fanfare. Preferring to live a life that is relatively free of drama or explosive displays of showiness (all I have to do is hear of people getting engaged via a line of skywriting or announcing their pregnancy by hiding a positive pregnancy test in someone’s birthday present and I start to feel all sweaty and embarrassed) might explain why I am so fond of foods that contain a bit of the unexpected. A rich brownie with a subtle undercurrent of cardamom and chipotle. A complicated Thai curry with a kick of lime that comes in at the end and smoothes out its blend of coconut and spice. And now, what currently stands as my favorite example of a sneaky flavor, a hint of bergamot concealed within a batch of brightly tart lemon bars.
Hailing from Tartine, the inaugural cookbook from the incredible San Francisco bakery of the same name, this is a lemon bar that pulls no punches when it comes to flavors. The meltingly delicious shortbread base is baked to a deep golden brown, giving it the taste of mellow, nutty brown butter.
The thick lemon custard that rests on top is fresh and tart, and does not make the mistake of masking its lemony sourness under a cloying sweetness. The bergamot (an addition made optional in the cookbook, but now considered by me to be an utter necessity) cuts through the clean taste of the lemon, dotting each bite with the pleasant sensation of subtly bitter orange. (Bergamot oranges, a hybrid citrus fruit that contain elements of both Mediterranean lemons and Seville oranges, provide the distinctive citrus undertone found in Earl Grey tea, and it creates a similarly aromatic and companionable effect here.)
I may not be one for surprises, but I can’t say I have ever shied away from the pleasures of variety. Eating one square of this lovely pastry is like taking a taste tour of a pastry case (brown butter shortbread cookies! Lemon custard! Candied orange!), providing your taste buds with thrills aplenty, minus even the slightest possibility of social discomfort.
Lemon Bergamot Bars
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
zest from 1 small bergamot orange, grated or finely chopped
6 large whole eggs
1 large egg yolk
pinch of salt
confectioners’ sugar (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9×13 inch baking pan.
To make the crust, sift the confectioners’ sugar into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the flour and stir to mix. Add the butter and beat on low speed just until a smooth dough forms. Transfer dough to the prepared pan and press evenly into the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of the pan. It should be about 1/4 inch thick. To help even out the crust, use the flat bottom of any type of cup, pressing down firmly. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights (dry beans or about a cup’s worth of pennies will provide the same effect as pie weights). Bake the crust until it colors evenly to a deep golden brown, 25-35 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees is the crust appears to be baking unevenly.
While the crust is baking, make the filling: Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and whisk until blended. Add the lemon juice and bergamot orange zest and stir to dissolve the sugar. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk the whole eggs and egg yolk with the salt. Add the eggs to the lemon juice mixture and whisk until well mixed.
When the crust is ready, pull out the oven rack holding the crust, remove the parchment paper and pie weights, and pour the filling directly into the hot pan. (It is easiest to pour the custard into the pan if the pan is in the oven.) If the crust has come out of the oven and cooled before you have finished making the filling, put it back in for a few minutes so that it is hot when the custard is poured into it. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees F and bake just until the center of the custard is no longer wobbly, 30-40 minutes.
Let cool completely on a wire rack, then cover and chill well before cutting. If you like, dust the tops of the squares with confectioners’ sugar. They will keep well in an airtight container or well covered in the baking dish in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.