My sister Abby used to make lemon squares. As a tween, they were her flourish. She would make them, over and over, for almost any occasion. She pulled out the recipe whenever she needed to impress. She made them for family parties, and for teachers. Sometimes she’d make them just to make them. They were always delicious and always devoured, no matter how set or loose the filling was. Abby developed a habit (which she still has) of not measuring when she baked, which meant the same results were never repeated twice.
Neither she nor I can remember which cookbook she used, but I have a feeling it was found in one of two- either the cheerful, red and white checked Betty Crocker, a binder disguising itself as a cookbook; or the stately, encyclopedic Good Housekeeping with its torn cover and pictorial index filled with unmistakably 80s food photography. There’s a chance too that it came from the recipe box stuffed with family favorites, but I doubt it. No one else in my family made lemon squares. Those were Abby’s alone.
Abby lives in Oakland now. Part of being an adult is the missing. There’s nostalgia for what you had, but also a profound sense of loss for what you could have had. Right now life has us in two very different parts of the country, and we’re not able to visit often. But the relatively recent miracle of the internet means we’re still connected. We Facetime and email and tag each other on Instagram. And food, while still miraculous but much more ancient, can bring us together in other ways.
These lemon squares remind me of Abby’s, but they’re not quite the same. Hers were exactly sweet enough for preteens, with a gooey filling and crumbly bottoms. The filling for these lemon squares is creamy instead, and the sweetness is tempered by a flurry of thyme and the floral notes of grapefruit juice. The crust is essentially a shortbread that’s patted into the pan and then par-baked. And, unlike Abby, I measure while making my lemon squares. I suggest using weight measurements for the greatest precision, but volume works too. Just as long as you use some form of measurement. Please.
Returning again to the miracle of food, this is where we were and where we are. My sister’s favorite childhood dessert, constructed with my pastry training and the sun-filled ingredients that populate her current home. It’s transportive- keeping us connected even when the distance feels insurmountable.
Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares
These lemon squares will absorb any powdered sugar you sprinkle onto them. I would advise waiting until the last moment to dust with powdered sugar in a decorative flourish.
makes 24 bars
adapted from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark
1 1/2 cups (195 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (55 grams) confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (170 grams) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon finely minced thyme
2 tablespoons (16 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
Confectioner’s sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350.
In a large bowl combine the flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt. Add the butter in, and toss to distribute and coat in the flour mixture. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter into the flour for about 5 minutes, until the butter is well distributed and the mixture comes together when squeezed. Turn the dough out into a 9 by 13 inch baking pan and pat it down. The dough should make one even layer in the bottom of the pan. Bake until golden and set, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and set aside.
While the shortbread is baking place the sugar into a medium bowl. Rub into the sugar the lemon zest and the chopped thyme until the sugar is fragrant and evenly speckled. Whisk into the sugar the flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, lemon juice, and grapefruit juice. Pour into the sugar mixture, and whisk until smoothly combined. Pour the lemon filling over the baked shortbread crust.
Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is just set, about 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, then cut into squares. Top with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.