I have many fond memories of spending time at my grandma’s house as a kid. She lived right next door to us, so it wasn’t unusual to go over and spend the night at her house on the occasional weekend. When it came to meals, breakfast was one that my grandma always wanted immediately after she woke up, even it that meant sitting down at the table around 5:30 a.m. My grandma was never one for hearty breakfasts of fried eggs, bacon, pancakes and the like. She’d make little muffins that she called “breakfast cakes”, usually with healthy things like raisins and bran cereal flakes, or chunks of pineapple. My sisters and I would each get a microwave-warmed “breakfast cake” which she’d pulled from her ever-present stash the freezer, accompanied by a tiny glass of orange juice and a steaming, scald-your-lips hot mug of hot cocoa, always made with water and not milk.
My grandma’s breakfast of choice, the one that she always came back to after countless batches of tiny muffins, was a simple grapefruit half and a cup of hot tea. I never knew anyone who ate as much grapefruit as my grandma! I don’t recall if she ever put sugar on her grapefruit before she dug in with one of her little sharp-edged grapefruit spoons, but whenever she’d serve me a half for breakfast, I was sure to load it up with lots of crunchy white sugar. My favorite part? Drinking the super sweet grapefruit juice left in the rind once all the fruit had been eaten.
Fancy was not necessarily my grandma’s style when it came to breakfast, so there’s no wonder that she never sprinkled sugar on her half of grapefruit and then shoved it into the broiler to create a thin layer of caramelized goodness on top of the fruit. I’ve never tried it myself, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea. Grapefruit? Good. Sugar? Good. Grapefruit and sugar? Gooooooood.
I always wanted to make grapefruit bars. It’s something I’ve never seen on any dessert menu or pastry case, always losing out to the ubiquitous lemon bars which, frankly, I get bored of. Combining a smooth, bittersweet grapefruit bar with a layer of toasty sugar? Now, that’s an idea.
grapefruit brûlée bars
(yields 16 – 2 inch bars)
1 1/3 c (176 g) AP flour
1/4 c (45 g) brown sugar
1 Tbs grapefruit zest
1 stick (1/2 cup / 4 oz) unsalted butter, softened
pinch of kosher salt
2 T (18 g) AP flour
1/2 c (108 g) granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
pinch of kosher salt
zest from half a grapefruit (9g)
1/2 c grapefruit juice (about 1 whole fruit’s worth)
3 Tbs (60 g) sour cream
1 drop red food coloring, optional
Begin by making the shortbread crust. First, preheat the oven to 350 and lightly grease an 8×8 inch baking dish, and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine all the crust ingredients except the butter. Add the softened butter and mix by hand or with a pastry cutter, until the whole mixture is in large coarse crumbs. Dump this crumbly mixture into the prepared baking dish and press into the bottom of the pan, not going up the sides. Bake the crust in the middle of the oven until just getting browned on the edges, about 25 minutes. While the crust is baking, make the filling!
In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, sour cream and zest until smooth. Whisk in the eggs until they’re well-mixed, and then whisk in the juice and the red food coloring until the whole mixture is smooth. Once the crust comes out of the oven, pour on the filling and return the baking dish to the oven for another 18-20 minutes. You may want to err on the side of caution and start checking as early as 16 minutes. I left my pan in the oven for a full 20 minutes before I checked on it, and the edges got a bit over-baked — oops! The filling will be ready when it just has a little jiggle that stops moving a second after the pan is shook. If it looks watery, or if the jiggling continues once the pan stops moving, bake it for a minute or two more.
Once the bars come out of the oven, allow them to cool fully at room temperature. I cheated a bit and threw mine into the fridge until the pan was no longer hot, and then I put the whole thing into the freezer. What can I say, I’m impatient! When the whole pan is chilled sufficiently, gently loosen the bars from the edge of the pan with a small offset spatula or a butter knife. Once loosened, you can slide a spatula under to loosen the crust from the bottom of the pan, and carefully lift the whole thing out onto a cutting board.
Score the bars with a large knife, into a total of 16 2-inch squares. Keep a pitcher of hot water and a paper towel handy when cutting through the bars, to clean the knife and wipe it dry between cuts. That grapefruit filling is super sticky and it’ll make a big mess of your pretty bars if you have to drag a dirty knife through them!
Now, the fun part. While these bars are plenty tasty on their own, that’s not what we’re here for. When you’re ready to serve the bars, grab a heat-proof surface like a sheet pan, and place the grapefruit bars onto it with a little room in between each one. Evenly sprinkle each little bar with a 1/4 teaspoon of granulated sugar, and bust out your kitchen torch! Sadly, I’m lacking in the awesome kitchen torch department and all I have is a tiny little butane-powered plastic thing that came with set of ramekins specifically for making crème brûlée. Even though it’s kinda puny and silly, it works just fine. Fire up your torch and, moving in a relatively fast circular motion about 2 or so inches from the surface of the sugar, caramelize the tops of each bar. Be warned, the sugar will continue to darken once you move the flame away, so move the torch once the sugar gets a light golden brown. Mine are a little too dark for my liking, but live and learn. What you’re aiming for is a thin layer of slightly burned sugar that will harden up like candy once it cools.
Remember in the move Amélie, how one of her favorite things was cracking the sugary top of crème brûlée with a spoon? It is rather fun, except here with these bars, you get to crack the sugary top with your teeth, and it’s much more fun than any spoon. The shortbread crust has a light caramel flavor on it’s own, thanks to the brown sugar, and the softness of the sweet-tart-bitter grapefruit filling is offset by the crackly-crisp thin sugar topping. I think my grandma would approve.
Only caramelize the ones you intend on eating immediately, as the sugar will get soft and weepy if you caramelize them and then chill them. The un-sugared bars will keep just fine in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container.