Here I give details concerning the known history of tantalizing lemons-dating back to before Christ-as well as a time-tested receipt for lemon bars.
In the 1950s, my mother often made these great bars, using a then popular recipe probably derived from a magazine, to which I have added my touches to make them simpler, tastier, better!
There are many variations of fruit that grow on trees in the genus Citrus, and these are prone to form hybrids with each other, making it hard for scientists to work out family relationships. Today it is believed that the common domesticated citrus fruits all derive from just three parents: the citron Citrus medica, the mandarin orange Citrus reticulate, and the pummelo Citrus maxima. 1
Lemons, so valued for their acidity-often 5% of the juice-are widely used in cooking and are highly revered in the making of beverages, pectin, medicines, and beauty products. This fruit may have originated as a two-step hybrid, in which both steps were citron-crossed with lime. It is proposed that the first step of this hybrid arose in the area of northwest India and Pakistan, while the second took place in the Middle East, where the citron, crossed with lime, was crossed additionally with pummelo. 2
In Food in History, Reay Tannahill postulates that people may have been eating lemons and limes as early as 2300 BC, when the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Dato, of the great Indus civilizations, were at their peak. 3
Around 100 AD lemons arrived in the Mediterranean via Arab traders; by 400 they were planted in orchards in Moorish Spain. Presently they are mainly cultivated in subtropical regions, with many varieties of true lemon, as well as a couple of further hybrids, such as the Ponderosa and Meyer lemons; the Ponderosa is large and coarse, probably a lemon-citron cross. The Meyer, probably a cross between the lemon and either orange or mandarin, however, is thin-skinned, with less acid, and a distinctive flavor due in part to a thyme note (from thymol); this later came to California in the early 20th century. 4
“Curing” promotes longer shelf life of lemons. Being picked green, they are held in controlled conditions for several weeks, allowing their green skins to yellow, thin, and develop a waxy surface; curing also promotes enlargement of the juice vesicles. 5
Epicures appreciate the preserved lemons of northern Africa as a condiment; they are made by cutting and salting lemons and letting them ferment for several weeks. (Up to a month may be required, as suggested in the great recipe at https://nourishedkitchen.com/morrocan-preserved-lemons/.) This process allows for the growth of bacteria and yeasts, which softens the rind and changes the aroma from bright and sharp to rich and rounded. 6
Often attempts are made to shorten the steps with many in-depth cooking procedures today. Such has occurred with these preserved lemons-for example they are frozen and thawed to speed salt penetration, then salted for a few hours or days. This will bring some of the needed chemical changes as the oil glands are disrupted and their contents are mixed with other substances, but without fermentation, full flavor development will not occur. 7
In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes that lemon comes via Arabic from a Persian word, reflecting the route these Asian fruits took as they made their way to the West. 8
Enjoy the explosion of great flavor in this proven lemon bar recipe!
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 373.
- Ibid., p. 377.
- Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three River Press, 1973, 1988), pp. 38, 39.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 377.
- Ibid. and https://nourishedkitchen.com/morrocan-preserved-lemons/
1950s’ Lemon Bars Yields: 16 small bars. Total prep time: 55 min/ active prep time: 20 min/ inactive prep time: 10 min/ baking time: 25 min. (There was a note on Mom’s recipe to add more lemon to this original 20th century recipe; thus, I increased both the lemon juice and flour to 3 tbsp each.)
1 c plus 3 tbsp unbleached white flour (Bob’s Red Mill organic is high quality.)
1/2 c butter, softened
1/4 c powdered sugar (Organic is best; available at Trader Joe’s.)
2 lg eggs
1 c sugar (Coconut sugar is ideal, in place of the white; may also use turbinado, raw cane sugar.)
Zest of 2 small lemons (Organic is very important, in order to avoid the taste of pesticides; available inexpensively at Trader’s.)
3 tbsp lemon juice, fresh squeezed
1/2 tsp of salt (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco.)
1/2 tsp baking powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Spray lemons with a safe, effective, inexpensive produce spray (combine 97% white distilled vinegar with 3% hydrogen peroxide). Let sit for 3 minutes and rinse well.
- With a fork in a medium bowl, blend 1 c flour, butter, and 1/4 c powdered sugar, until mealy like a pie crust. Pat mixture firmly into an ungreased 8” x 8” pan and bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown (see above photo). Cool on wire rack for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile zest lemons, then juice them.
- Slightly beat the eggs in a bowl with an electric mixer; blend in your choice of 1 c white, coconut, or turbindo sugar. (For info on coconut and cane sugars, see Zucchini Bread-2017/07/24-and Pear Pie-2016/10/31-respectively.)
- Mix in remaining 3 tbsp flour, salt, and baking powder; add lemon zest and juice, beating until frothy (see photo above). Set aside.
Spread lemon mixture evenly on top of slightly cooled crust. Return to oven and bake for 25 minutes more, or until golden brown. Note: this will firm up more with cooling. See photo.
- Dust with powdered sugar and cut into 16 pieces, while bars are warm. Refrigerate leftovers.