For those who are crazy about them, there is no such thing as a bad lemon square. It's just that some are much better than others. Ever since the first lemon bars came out in the 1940s, cooks have tried to reinvent them, and doing so is akin to reinventing the wheel. What was wrong with the original? Some cooks have added coconut to the crust. Others have tried making them with a graham cracker crust. That, I just don't get.
They've also fiddled with fillings, adding sweetened condensed milk, making it more like one of those lusciously creamy lemon pies. But we're talking lemon squares here, not pie. And there are even recipes turning them green with food coloring or adding mint leaves to the mix. And that, once again, I don't understand.
What happened to a plain lemon square — where did it go? For the purist, there is no lemon bar other than those served back in the day — those amazingly simple lemon squares garnished with powdered sugar that were de rigueur for hostesses and caterers at every ladies luncheon and office party.
Lemon bars pay homage to the lemon in the same way the avocado honors guacamole — the sugar balances the lemon's tartness; the butter smooths its acidic levels and the flour evens everything out, mellowing the intensity of both.
Better still, lemon squares — we're talking the old-fashioned basic recipe — use ingredients most likely in your pantry and refrigerator: butter, flour, sugar, eggs, lemons and powdered sugar. Simple ingredients that, when married, are perfection all rolled into one.
Save the bells and whistles for your other desserts. This is one that needs no improvement. Its bright, tart, sweet taste with a nice crunchy base dances in your mouth. They can be taken on a picnic or served at a fancy buffet dinner party.
Old-Fashioned Lemon Squares
2 cups flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups sugar
7 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon baking powder
Grated rind of 3 lemons
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, blend together flour, softened butter, salt and powdered sugar. Press into the bottom of a lightly greased 9- by 13-inch pan like you would a pie crust. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes in the preheated oven or until firm and edges are just beginning to be golden.
In another bowl, whisk together the filling ingredients, and pour over warm crust. You don't want the crust to cool.
Bake for an additional 25 minutes at 350 degrees. The bars will firm up as they cool. After the bars have cooled, dust with powdered sugar, and cut into 2-inch squares. Store in tightly covered container.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.