Lemon Squares

An edible work of art


This is a story about lemon squares. They are not the stunning desserts that grab your lapels the same way a Pavlova or 10-layer cake would. They are the sweet wallflowers that surprise with their depth of citrusy flavor and texture. 

Easy to make for weeknight desserts, lemon squares are beautiful and luscious enough to grace a table at a wedding. With little investment of time or money, you can create a tart and tangy work of edible art. 

Making and eating lemon squares can be a thoroughly sensorial experience. You can use a rubber spatula, but I like using my fingertips to pat the crust down into the pan, like firming the soil around a new seedling. I flour my fingertips if the dough is sticky. Next, I cut a lemon in half, take a sniff and squeeze its juice. I try to see what Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, sees in half a lemon—a goblet of gold and riches containing the fire of a planet and the miracles of a universe. 

Take your time eating a lemon square and notice how your upper teeth sink into a thick, creamy layer of lemony custard. Your lower teeth bite through the shortbread crust. Eventually you’ll have to lick the snowy dusting of powdered sugar from your lips, evoking a sensuous taste of the sublime. 

Martha Stewart and Ina Garten have good recipes; so does Deb Perelman of the Smitten Kitchen. I found this recipe in a children’s cookbook. Consequently, it has few ingredients and is easy to follow. Some recipes call for using an entire lemon, including all the pith and peel, or refrigerating the crust for 15 minutes before baking it. I find those steps to be unnecessary.

When I die I will miss the yellow heralds of spring: dandelions and daffodils, forsythia and goldfinches, yellow tulips and crocus. To this list I would add heavenly yellow lemon squares. 


Lemon Squares
—Adapted from the Gold Medal Alpha Bakery Cookbook

For the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup butter, softened
¼ cup powdered sugar

For the lemon layer:
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
Powdered sugar for dusting
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix thoroughly the flour, butter and powdered sugar in a small bowl. Press evenly with fingertips in bottom and about 5/8 inch up sides of an ungreased square pan, 8x8x2 inches.  If dough is sticky, flour your fingertips.  Bake for 20 minutes, or until crust is golden.

Beat remaining ingredients in a medium bowl on medium speed until light and fluffy. Pour over hot crust.

Bake just until no indentation remains when touched lightly in center, about 25 minutes.  Let stand until cool, then cut in about 1 and ½ inch squares. Dust tops with powdered sugar.  Makes nine large squares.

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