There’s a special kind of terror to starting high school, especially if you’re crossing proverbial train tracks, away from hard-earned middle school friends and into a cultural unknown. To ease that transition, a kind teacher at my new school brought in lemon bars on the first day.
The bakery box with pink script reflected the throwback to Postwar style on campus, where students slipped shiny coins into their penny loafers. (At my old school, we dreamed of owning Air Jordans.) When the other girls saw the lemon bars, they were so excited, their ponytails and the satin bows tying them bounced. But I panicked.
I had no idea what lemon bars were. They looked tasty but seemed to represent the assimilation my friends had warned me about. At my middle school, nearly all of us were immigrants kids from East Asia or Mexico. My classmates said that my new school would turn my Chinese American self into a banana or a Twinkie — yellow on the outside, white within.
And here were these (yellow and white!) bars, tempting as Eve’s fruit in Eden. So, of course, I ate one. And my fear of losing what little sense of self I had at 13 vanished. Because the lemon bars didn’t taste like a loss of identity, but an expansion of it.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I knew crunchy store-bought chocolate chip cookies and homemade chewy mochi, creamy tres leches and sticky baklava. But from-scratch treats from midcentury Americana were foreign to me — and lemon bars tasted especially mysterious, at once sour and sweet, rich and sharp.
With their wobbly tops, they can’t be mass-produced so that everyone can try them, but they’re easy enough to bake so anyone can make them. One of the earliest known published recipes came from Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson, who contributed her version to the Aug. 27, 1962, issue of the Chicago Tribune. The next year, Betty Crocker’s “Cooky Book” included a recipe for Lemon Squares, which extended its popularity beyond local community cookbooks.
This version brings the floral notes from lemon zest into the buttery crust to tie the citrus of the top to the base. The wisps of lemon peel bake into the cookie, their aroma amplified by butter.
Rather than cutting cold butter into flour and powdered sugar for a crumbly bottom as many recipes do, it instead combines melted butter with flour and granulated sugar for a snappier, sturdier and simpler dough. After setting in the oven, the crust is covered with a just-as-simple lemon curd mixture while it’s still hot. Doing so ensures that the layers meld together, with each bite starting with melt-in-your-mouth curd and ending with a satisfying crispness. Milky butter and acidic lemon fuse in the oven, even when they seem like they shouldn’t.
And like the Chinese desserts I was raised on, this recipe is not too sweet. With just enough sugar to temper tart lemon juice, these bars let the complexity of citrus shine. Bringing that aspect of my heritage to an American standard reflects what I began to understand on the first day of high school and am still learning now: to appreciate each new experience as additive and not as potential threats to self — especially in the kitchen. The food itself holds no intentions. What we bring to it defines what it can mean, how good it can taste and how much it can help us grow. Each dish, each stage of life adds a layer, however disparate it may seem, to a strong base for a complex, wonderful whole.
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