My grandma Ruth taught me how to make lemon squares when I was -- what, maybe twelve? That's about the age I remember getting interested in baking, pulling out my mother's battered copy of Joy of Cooking to make cocoa meringue kisses and chocolate chip cookies.
Grandma Ruth - Dad's mom, for whom I am named - was not a fancy cook, but she put on a good spread whenever we drove up to Queens for a weekend visit. My grandfather Ed was - true to his German heritage - a real meat and potatoes guy, and her cooking was tailored to his tastes. A pork roast, maybe, and perhaps Brussels sprouts. The fatty heel of the roast was always a special treat reserved for my grandfather alone.
As fundamental as those dinners were, Grandma didn't neglect dessert. She was an affectionate, but not overly demonstrative woman, and perhaps the gift of home-baked treats took the place of grandmotherly gushing. Or maybe she just had a sweet tooth. Regardless, there are two desserts for which she was - within the confines of our family- justly famous: her lemon meringue pie and her lemon squares.
As a kid, I had never before encountered anything like her lemon squares, with their rich, buttery crust and tangy, smooth topping. She usually sliced them a little too soon out of the oven, as we were all impatient to eat them. She heaped the crumbly, ragged-edged bars onto a china plate, dusting them with powdered sugar just before bringing them to the table. They weren't gorgeous, but boy were they yummy.
I learned to make those lemon squares by watching her make them, nigh onto three decades ago. She wrote the recipe out for me on a recipe card which now resides - stained and tattered - in a plastic sleeve in my 3-ring binder of miscellaneous recipes. It is the essence of simplicity: five ingredients, and only one mixing bowl needed. No stand mixer or power tools required.
I tried, several years ago, to see whether I couldn't improve on her recipe, embarking on a multi-week baking binge. I tested recipes from Todd English, Rose Levy Berenbaum, and even Martha Stewart. I tried recipes recommended to me by Internet friends and strangers alike. I tried shortbread crusts, cornmeal crusts, and almond crusts. I tried many, many variations of pre-cooked lemon curd. I eventually came up with a formula that resulted in a bar that would cut cleanly, with a crust sturdy enough to package for sale as part of my late, lamented baking business. And they were delicious, and they always sold out quickly.
But lately, whenever I've made lemon squares, I find I'm reaching for my grandma Ruth's well-worn recipe card. I have the components for the "improved" lemon squares already made, in the freezer: shortbread dough for the crust well wrapped, and a vat of home-made lemon curd at the ready.
Still, I end up simply grabbing two sticks of butter, flour, powdered sugar, a few eggs, a lemon. A cheap hand pastry cutter and a mixing bowl. The only deviations from her notecard I make are to substitute butter for margarine and to increase the lemon juice (and use its zest as well). Mix the crust, pat it into a pan, and bake. While the crust cooks, mix up the topping and pour it in top of the hot crust, then back into the oven. let them cool as long as you can bear it, then cut and serve. Dusting of powdered sugar optional.
I'm making a batch this weekend for my father, who has taken a bad turn this week. He is very (more) frail, barely communicative, and very mentally altered. But he is eating, and these lemon squares are his favorite. Whatever slim enjoyment we can provide him these days is worth doing.
GRANDMA RUTH'S LEMON SQUARES
Preheat oven to 350*. Butter only the sides of a 9" x 13" pan.
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 cup sugar
3 Tbs flour
1/3 - 1/2 cup lemon juice (to your taste)
finely shredded zest from one lemon
Mix the crust ingredients like pie dough (I use a pastry cutter), being careful not to overwork it. Press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 15-20 until pale gold -- it should not brown.
While the crust is baking, lightly beat the eggs in a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix. When crust is baked, pour the topping over the hot crust and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes. The topping should be set but not too firm.
Allow to cool as long as you can stand it prior to slicing and serving. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if you like.