Food Scoop: Lemon Bars

By my standards, lemon bars are a rare cookie, a two-layered combination of shortbread and custard-like lemon toping. They seem to appear mostly at potlucks or church picnics. For all that they seem to be a favorite of the pre-baby boomer crowd. They’re incredibly easy. I discovered this when I made them myself.

This came about because my mother has been reminiscing about the lemon bars that her grandmother made. My mom would sit at the dining room table in my great-grandmother’s farmhouse, and eat lemon bars during their afternoon tea.

I’d be sitting at our dining room table listening to my moum talk about the “burst of lemon flavor” that characterized lemon bars., Tthen she would say something like, “We have all those lemons….” Finally, after a few weeks of being poked and prodded in this direction, I made lemon bars for my mother.

She pulled out a cookbook produced as a part of a bi-centennial celebration of an Iowan community, put together in 1976. It’s full of recipes calling for oleo instead of butter, and includes all sorts of helpful hints taken from cookbooks dating back to the late 1800s. The recipes I looked at were all very simple, and came from women in the community. I started with a recipe contributed by a Ms. Hila Dana.

I think a lot of recipes have become more complex as fewer people are in the kitchen cooking every single day. Cookbooks now are a reflection of people who pursue cooking as either a hobby or a profession, and sometimes I think they are very intimidating. These lemon bars are far from intimidating.

The shortbread layer on the bottom is made from a total of three ingredients: flour, butter, and powdered sugar. While that was baking in the oven, I whipped up the rest of the ingredients to keep it from getting soggy when the custard was added. Eggs, sugar, baking powder, lemon and corn starch. That’s a total of eight ingredients – for a beautiful, delicate little pastry.

I poured the egg and lemon mixture over the pre-baked crust, and stuck it back in the oven. That was it. I had a single dirty bowl, as well as the mixing and measuring spoons. It’s easier than making chocolate chip cookies, and equally tasty for a person craving lemon.

When I pulled it out of the oven and set it out to cool, my mother was keeping a close eye on it. I wanted to let it settle for a while, as I had never made lemon bars before. My mother, on the other hand, was ready to pounce almost as soon as the cake pan wasn’t going to burn her fingers.

Getting the first slice out was a little crumbly, but both my mom and I were delighted when we sampled a bite and discovered that the lemon was sweet, rather than a sharp, tongue-cringing lemon flavor. Not these—they are a creamy, delicate lemon on top of a light, sweet shortbread. Not only did I make my mother happy, but I discovered a new cookie that is easy to make and easy to eat.

Lemon Bars (adapted from the Milford Community Bicentennial Cookbook: Spirit of ’76)
For shortbread:
1 cup flour
1 stick butter
1/4 cup powdered sugar
For lemon layer:
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
3 heaping tablespoons corn starch
Heat oven to 350 degrees Farhrenheit.

Soften butter by putting it in the microwave for 15-25 seconds. Do not let it melt. Cream butter together with flour and powdered sugar. Once the mixture is smooth and homogeneous, press into an 8×8 baking pan. This is not a flat or short-lipped baking tray, but rather one you can use a two-inch cake pan. The shortbread should be pressed into an even sheet. If you are using your hands, you’ll probably do best if you flour them first so the dough does not stick to you.

Bake for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs lightly. Add the sugar, baking powder, lemon juice, lemon zest and corn starch. Beat until it is a pale yellow color throughout. When shortbread comes out of the oven, pour the egg and lemon mixture over the shortbread.

Return to oven and bake for another 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with a little powdered sugar. Let cool, or the egg and lemon may ooze a little bit. Cut into bars, serve and enjoy!

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