Wednesday, September 23, 2009

lemon bars, and a little history

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
pinch salt
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.


Sam@BingeNYC said...

My nanny used to make these for my sisters & I too (though my nanny was an actual nanny and not a lovely grandmother!) Still my sister's favorite dessert! These look heavenly. I've got to whip some up during these last few summer days!

larry said...

MMMMMM! Lemon bars

Ellen said...

These look SO good. I loved the story about cockaigne too. When it comes to cooking, there's really nothing I can teach my mom, but I think you might have given me my chance!!

Lesley said...

I'd wondered about cockaigne -- I made the Joy brownie recipe a few weeks ago, and just assumed the word was some obscure French cooking term. But the brownies were heavenly. Thanks for clearing that up. :-)

Also, I'd consider lemon bars to be Southern. I was just in Anderson, South Carolina a few weeks ago, they were one of the main attractions at a popular bakery in town. As an aside, the bakery also had fabulous pimento cheese. I LOVE pimento cheese.

Been a lurker for a bit -- enjoying your blog!

Lisa said...

Sam: Baked goods from a Nanny are so wonderful, related or not! Thanks for reading.

Larry: Who knew you had such a love for lemon bars? I am filing this information away.

Ellen: Thanks, lady! I hope you get the chance to one up your mom!

Lesley: Thanks so much for commenting--I'm enjoying your blog too! Pimento cheese is good, but in a sandwich? Oh my. That's overload for me. I'm used to seeing it on a cracker!

Unknown said...

These bars look yummy and don't seem terribly difficult to make. Thanks for the recipe!

Lisa said...

Tender Branson: They really are. I've made them many times and have never had a problem. A real success for a baking-challenged person like myself!

Daniel said...

This Cockaigne thing is very interesting. It's like the Da Vinci Code of cookbooks. Maybe when you make a meal out of all the cockaigne dishes you get...the Last Supper!!!

Judy said...

I'm being shamed into making lemon bars! I was going to make chocolate pudding this week but not anymore! Larry wants lemon bars. Don't know how I'll get my chocolate fix.

Lisa said...

Daniel: It would be a mixed-up meal, that's for sure.

Judy: Oh no! I'm sorry this post dashed your chocolate plans. Don't worry, though. Larry will polish off a whole pan of bars in one sitting so you can still make pudding.

Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

I can attest that Lisa's lemon bars are hands-down the best!

Anonymous said...

They look so yummy...I'm pretty sure that lemon bars are of Greek origin. :)


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