For our Southern dinner, I went with a dessert that's probably not all that Southern. Lemon bars strike me as a product of the Midwest, like casseroles and Jell-O salads. That is not to say that they aren't delicious. Lemon bars are one of my favorite desserts of all time.
My Nanny always used to make these for family dinners, but from a box mix. Also good, but lemon bars can be improved considerably if you make them from scratch. I think lemon desserts need fresh lemon juice and zest to really shine. And really, it's not that much more work to go the handmade route.
I like the recipe in Joy of Cooking for lemon bars Cockaigne. I never knew what this word "Cockaigne" meant or why it was used in certain random recipe titles in Joy, like another one for brownies. The lemon bars were so good, I didn't really care. But kind of weird, right?
Turns out, it is actually a secret code for some of the best recipes in the cookbook. Cockaigne is a medieval word for "land of plenty," where no one works and has every sort of luxury and pleasure imaginable. Over time, it turned into a fictional utopia, like Atlantis, referenced by poets and even the Brothers Grimm.
Tying it back to lemon bars, Marion Rombauer Becker, daughter of the original Joy of Cooking author Irma S. Rombauer, had a country home in Ohio that was named Cockaigne. Many Joy recipes are coded with the word, referencing the place they came from but also that they were personal favorites of the author. There are recipes for brownies, Cincinnati chili, fruitcake, meatloaf, almond torte, and creamed eggs and asparagus Cockaigne, among others. If you see this word, chances are the recipe is worth trying.
This lemon bar recipe is my go-to because it's supremely easy (no mixer required!) and always works. In a little over an hour, you get a pan of perfectly tart bars with a gooey, lemon curd-like filling and slightly sweet shortbread crust. There's also a nice ratio of filling to crust. I like extra filling you can really sink your teeth into.
And who knew the story was so good too?
Lemon bars Cockaigne
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
(Makes about 18 3-inch by 2-inch squares)
For the crust:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
12 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the filling:
6 large eggs
3 cups sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. lemon juice (about 5 lemons)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting
Sift the flour, sugar, and salt into a large bowl. Using two knives or your fingertips (recommended) cut in the butter until the mixture is the size of small peas. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 9" by 13" baking pan, and about 3/4" up the sides of the pan to keep the filling from leaking during baking.
Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool.
To make the filling (you can do this as you are baking the crust), whisk eggs and sugar together until well combined. Add the zest and juice; whisk well. Sift the flour over the top and stir until well blended. Pour filling over the cooled crust. Bake until set, about 30 to 35 minutes. (They should be slightly jiggly.) Let the pan cool completely before cutting into bars. Dust with confectioner's sugar, if desired.