July 3, 2009
If I believed in super-long blog post titles, this one would be “LEMON SQUARES: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS & INFLUENCE PEOPLE.”
When I was in graduate school (in the achingly gorgeous desert land of Tucson, Arizona), I had a nonfiction writing workshop once a week. Every week. For two years.
Of those Lord-knows-how-many workshops, I estimate that I brought baked goods to class seventy-five percent of the time. And of those times that I brought baked good to class, lemon squares took up a disproportionately large share.
I became famous for my lemon squares. Their presence was often (and still is!) requested at workshops, parties, meetings, as presents, etc. I can’t prove that it’s true, but I believe my lemon squares won me some goodwill with colleagues who might have otherwise written more scathing critiques of my manuscripts or been all-to-eager to shred my narratives to pieces.
Now, you may want to know, what is my lemon square secret? What mystery ingredient have I conjured to take these humble little shortbread-crust-bottomed, custard-and-powdered-sugar-topped suckers to the next level of deliciousness?
Well, nothing, really. Mine is a really basic recipe, one that my hands will practically make for me at this point. There’s nothing particularly magical about them, but they’ve never failed me. Perhaps it comes down to this: the gesture of baking something from scratch, of feeding others something you took time to make with your own hands, and make well, is magical. It breeds relatedness and good feeling. It’s just a kind thing to do. (Especially in grad school, when everyone’s poor & hungry).
So, even though these are not red, white, & blue; even though they do not utilize the plump berries and sugar-crystalled watermelon of the season, I humbly offer you my lemon square recipe and urge you to bake some up. Walk a plate over to your neighbors. Take some to work on Monday (when everyone will be grumpy about having to be back at work on Monday). Or just add them to the Fourth of July potluck pile and watch them disappear.
ARIZONA LEMON SQUARES
makes 16 modest or 9 generous squares
oven: Preheat to 350.
pan: 8 inch square (double recipe to fit into larger, rectangular pan)
To make your life easier, line the pan with foil and then spray it well with cooking spray. You can just spray the pan, but you’ll have to scrub it afterwards.
crust: 1 ½ cup flour
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
¼ cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
I always throw these ingredients straight into the pan and crumble them with my fingers—no need to mess up a bowl! When you’ve got a pebbly-looking mixture, press down so the crust covers the bottom of the pan and a little bit up the sides. Smooth down with the bottom of a small glass or bowl, if you like.
Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, or until it’s just getting brown. While the crust is baking, make the filling.
filling: 2 eggs
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
Zest the lemons first (I like a lot of zest, so I use both), then chop the zest finely and set aside. Juice the lemons next—you’ll may only need one lemon to reach the desired 2 T. Add juice to zest. Throw in the rest of the ingredients, adding the eggs last.
Beat everything together either with a whisk or a mixer (I’ve done both, and this is really one recipe where you don’t have to get your Kitchen Aid dirty). Mix until everything’s frothy and thick, about 3 minutes.
When the hot crust comes out of the oven, pour the filling on top. Bake another 20-25 minutes or until the top is just turning brown and is set in the middle. Cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes, then dust with a generous amount of powdered sugar (sometimes I do two passes with the powdered sugar to get a thick layer).
Cool completely, or as long as you can wait before cutting into squares.
* When I can find them, I use Meyer lemons, which make for exquisite lemon squares. Just dial down the sugar to ¾ or even ½ cup, since Meyer lemons are not as tart.