These are my go-to lemon bars and they never disappoint me. An extra-thick layer of perfectly tart, sugar-dusted lemon curd sits atop a shortbread base that is rich, buttery and irresistible. These chilled dessert squares are the perfect summer treat and will delight the lemon lovers in your life.

As an added bonus, they are surprisingly easy to make for a dessert of this quality. To create the shortbread and lemon curd filling, you will need just six basic baking staples — eggs, butter, sugar, flour, vanilla and salt — and four to five lemons. Better still, both the shortbread and filling can be easily mixed by hand, and I even use the same bowl for each, making for an easy cleanup.

Unlike other shortbread recipes that call for cold butter, I use melted butter as the base for this shortbread crust. The melted butter creates a richly dense crumb that can better support the generous layer of lemon curd.

Melted butter is the key to this shortbread crust, which is easy to mix together by hand. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Melted butter is the key to this shortbread crust, which is easy to mix together by hand. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

The thick dough comes together quickly with a wooden spoon and very little elbow grease. The shortbread is baked in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. I line the pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, leaving a bit of overhang on the sides, so that the bars can be easily lifted out of the pan when done.

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The shortbread dough will be slightly greasy from the melted butter, so I use the back of a spoon to firmly press it into the pan in a smooth, even layer.

Use the back of a spoon to smoothly press the shortbread dough into a parchment-lined baking dish. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Use the back of a spoon to smoothly press the shortbread dough into a parchment-lined baking dish. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Low heat is best for this recipe, and I bake the shortbread at 325 degrees just until the edges start to turn a very light golden brown, about 25 minutes, depending on your oven.

I prepare the lemon filling as the shortbread bakes, using the same bowl that I used to make the shortbread. Fresh lemons are essential for these bars, and you will need 1 cup of freshly squeezed juice as well as 2 tablespoons of lemon zest.

Fresh lemons are a must for Sarah's Luscious Lemon Bars, and this recipe calls for both fresh lemon juice and zest for the filling. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Fresh lemons are a must for Sarah's Luscious Lemon Bars, and this recipe calls for both fresh lemon juice and zest for the filling. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

I have made these bars with bottled lemon juice and no lemon zest, and the result is just not the same.

Once the shortbread is ready, I remove it from the oven and use a fork to poke holes all around the surface, being careful not to poke all the way through to the bottom. This step helps the filling to adhere to the crust (but I have forgotten to do it on occasion and the bars are still just as delicious).

The shortbread is baked just until the edges turn a light golden brown and then docked with holes to help the lemon filling bond with the crust. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The shortbread is baked just until the edges turn a light golden brown and then docked with holes to help the lemon filling bond with the crust. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Next, I pour the filling over the crust and bake the bars until the center is firmly set and barely holds a jiggle, about 20 to 25 minutes. When done, I cool the bars completely at room temperature and then cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least two hours before slicing into squares and dusting with powdered sugar. The bars can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to one week, or frozen for several months.

I sent a batch of lemon bars to school with my son Giovanni last week, as a thank you to the faculty and staff. One of his former teachers approached Gio that day and told him that her marriage might be in trouble, because she was going to have to choose between the two loves of her life: her husband of many years, or my Luscious Lemon Bars.

Sarah’s Luscious Lemon Bars

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Makes: 24 2-inch bars

Shortbread ingredients:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

½ cup granulated sugar

1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon kosher salt (skip if using salted butter)

2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Filling ingredients:

2 cups granulated sugar

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon kosher salt

6 large eggs

1 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed (about 4 lemons)

2 tablespoons lemon zest

Powdered sugar (for dusting)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with parchment paper or aluminum foil and leave some hanging over the sides so that the bars will be easy to remove when ready.

In a medium-large bowl, add the melted butter, sugar, vanilla and salt. Use a wooden spoon to stir together until fully combined. Tip the dough into the prepared baking dish and use the back of a spoon to firmly press the dough into the pan in a smooth, even layer. Use a paper towel to wipe any crumbs from the bowl and set aside to use for the lemon filling.

Bake the shortbread until the edges just begin to turn a light golden brown, about 22 to 25 minutes.

Prepare the lemon curd filling as the shortbread bakes. Sift the flour and sugar together in the same bowl that was used for the shortbread. Add the eggs and use a whisk to vigorously mix them in until fully blended. Add the lemon juice and zest and whisk to combine.

Once the shortbread is ready, remove the pan from the oven and immediately use a fork to poke holes all around the crust, but not going all the way through to the bottom. This will bind the lemon curd filling to the crust.

Pour the prepared lemon filling over the warm crust. Bake the bars until the filling is set and barely jiggles when tapping the side of the pan, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer to a wire rack. Cool completely at room temperature, at least 1 hour.

Once cool, cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate the bars until well-chilled, about 2 hours or even overnight.

When ready to slice, run a knife or offset spatula between the pan and the bars at each end of the pan and then use the parchment or foil overhang to lift the bars out of the baking pan and onto a cutting board.

Dust the top generously with powdered sugar and cut the bars into 2-inch squares. To create sharp squares, use a damp paper towel to wipe the knife after each cut.

To store: Lemon bars can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for several months. For best result, cut the bars into squares and freeze on a baking sheet until frozen, about 2 hours, then transfer to an airtight container.

Sarah’s tip: Other citrus fruits like orange, lime and grapefruit can also be used in place of, or combined with, the lemon.

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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.