A Little Melt Helps with Lemon Squares

You wouldn’t think simply melting butter would make such a difference. Well, maybe you would, but I didn’t really think about it until I was looking at two lemon square recipes in my recipe notebook.

One of them I added to my book in 1991, adapted from an older version of the Joy of Cooking, and it had a little note next to it that said, “Good Ones.” Actually I use that recipe regularly, but when I compared it to the one I cajoled out of my friend Terri Roper back in the ‘80s, I noticed the ingredient list was nearly identical. The newer one calls for the grated peel of a lemon in addition to lemon juice. Over time, I have dropped the amount of sugar by about a quarter so it really makes my sour tooth sing.

Still, it is the crust on the 1991 ones that I really like, and the difference is merely that you are supposed to melt the butter before adding it to the flour and sugar mixture. Terri’s recipe calls for cutting or rubbing the butter into the flour and sugar as if you were making pie crust. Otherwise, the procedure is the same. Mix them together, press it into the pan, bake, then add the lemon and egg mixture and bake again. The melted butter makes for a crunchier crust, in my opinion, and gives it a bit of a caramel flavor. I suppose it must be a law of chemistry at work that the melted butter bonds differently with the sugar. I don’t usually come at cookery with a scientific mind-set, but in this case it occurs to me that it is worth tucking this bit of information away in case I want to tweak a recipe in the future.

Come to think of it, I remember messing around with gingersnap recipes from the 1800s. One set called for molasses and shortening heated together added to flour. The other called for rubbing flour and butter together and adding molasses. Guess which ones rolled out more thinly and were crispier? Bingo.

So here you go with my favorite lemon squares. If you like it sweet, add more sugar. You can drop back the lemon juice, too, if you want. And in case you like a shortbread approach to lemon square crust, rub the butters, sugar, and flour together. Otherwise, melt away.

Lemon Squares

1 cup flour
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted

¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs beaten
2 tablespoons lemon juice
grated peel of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an eight by eight inch pan. Sift together the flour and confectioner’s sugar. Add the melted butter and blend completely. Press into the baking pan, pressing it up the sides slightly. Bake for twenty minutes until golden brown and slightly puffed. Remove from the oven, and flatten it by pressing with the back of a spoon.

Put all the filling ingredients together in a medium bowl and beat together with a spoon. Pour the mixture into the pre-baked crust, and bake it all together for twenty-five more minutes or until the filling is set. Let cool before cutting into squares.

Makes about 16 squares.

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About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.