The transition from middle school to high school may be terrifying for a number of reasons, particularly if it means moving away from long-standing friendships and into an environment whose norms and customs are unfamiliar to the student. On the first day of school at my new school, a nice teacher handed in lemon bars to help ease the adjustment that I was going through.
The bakery box with pink letters was a reflection of the homage to the Postwar aesthetic that was prevalent on campus, when students would slide glittering pennies into their penny shoes. (When I was in high school, everyone had a secret desire to get a pair of Air Jordans.) The other girls’ ponytails and the satin bows that were tied around them jumped with excitement as they saw the lemon bars for the first time. But I became frantic.
I was completely unaware of what lemon bars were. Although they seemed to be delectable, they appeared to be a symbol of the assimilation that my friends had cautioned me of. Nearly all of the students in my middle school were children of immigrants, either from East Asia or Mexico. My friends joked that my new school would make me seem like a banana or a Twinkie, with a yellow peel and a white inside. They compared me to going to a school that would do this.
And here they were, these (yellow and white!) bars, as enticing as the fruit that Eve had in Eden. And the anxiety I felt about losing what little sense of myself I had when I was 13 disappeared. Because the lemon bars did not have the flavour of an identity being lost but rather an identity being expanded upon.
While I was growing up in Los Angeles, I was familiar with chewy handmade mochi as well as crisp store-bought chocolate chip cookies, smooth tres leches cake, and sticky baklava. But the desserts of the 1950s and 1960s that were made from scratch were unfamiliar to me. Lemon bars in particular had a flavour that was puzzling to me since it was both sour and sweet, rich and sharp.
They cannot be mass-produced because to their unstable tops, so not everyone will have the chance to sample them, but they are simple enough to bake that anybody will be able to create them on their own. Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson, whose recipe was published in the Chicago Tribune on August 27, 1962, is credited as having supplied one of the first recorded examples of a recipe that was subsequently made public. The next year, Betty Crocker’s “Cooky Book” included a recipe for Lemon Squares, which contributed to the dish’s widespread appeal outside the realm of community cookbooks.
The flowery aromas from the lemon zest are incorporated into this version’s buttery crust, which connects the citrusy topping to the bottom layer of the pie. The scent of the lemon peel is enhanced as it bakes into the biscuit thanks to the use of butter.
In contrast to the majority of recipes, which call for cold butter to be mixed into flour and powdered sugar to create a crumbly bottom, this one mixes melted butter with flour and granulated sugar to create a dough that is more resilient, easier to work with, and snappier. After hardening in the oven, the crust is topped with a combination that is just as easy to make as lemon curd while it is still hot from the oven. By doing so, you can be certain that the layers will combine, with each mouthful beginning with curd that will easily dissolve in your tongue and finishing with a delightful sharpness. In spite of the fact that they should not, butter’s milky texture and lemon’s tangy flavour come together in the oven.
This dish, much like the traditional Chinese sweets I grew up eating, does not include an excessive amount of sugar. These bars showcase the layered flavour of citrus thanks to the fact that they include just the right amount of sugar to offset the tartness of lemon juice. Adapting that component of my background to an American norm symbolises what I started to realise on the first day of high school and what I’m still learning now: to value each new experience as an addition rather than as a possible danger to one’s own well-being, especially when it comes to the kitchen. The meal itself is not responsible for anything. What we bring to the table determines what it may signify, how delicious it can be, and how much it can help us develop as individuals. Each course, much like each stage of life, adds a layer, no matter how unrelated it may seem at the time, to a solid foundation in order to create a lovely, multifaceted whole.