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Soggy Bottoms: Victorian Lemon Bars

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http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/WP/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/SoggyBottom-Logo-300x165.pngI’m taking over Soggy Bottoms this month, because I want to talk about lemons!

A freak storm damaged some of the branches on my lemon tree, and I ended up harvesting several bags of lemony goodness.

I’ve been desperately seeking lemon recipes ever since.


My lemon harvest haul

Luckily, I collect vintage cookbooks, so I opened up Victorian Parlors and Tea Parties by Patricia Mitchell, a 36-page booklet with recipes culled in part from the Pittsylvania County Public Library in Virginia. This was published in 1991 and it’s probably been sitting on my bookshelf almost as long.

If historical accuracy is important to you, note that some recipes have been adapted to include “derivations [that] are more healthful because whole wheat flour is used and very little fat,” and others are attributed to mid-20th century cookbooks.

Still, I have too many lemons to be choosy so I decided to make “Good Breeding” Lemon Squares. Like most older recipes, this one is bracingly simple compared to the chatty, encouraging tone of my favorite modern cookbooks. This recipe called for 2 sticks of margarine. I was skeptical. Was margarine around in the late 19th century?

I called my food scientist friend, Amy, who claimed the only thing she remembered about the history of margarine was that it was illegal to sell it in Wisconsin until 1967. This is true.

Also, margarine used to be white, and you had to knead in the yellow food coloring separately. This is also true.

I had no idea that margarine was so controversial.

Mmmm…Melted butter and flour

But as much as I love courting controversy, I love butter even more, so that’s what goes into this recipe.

As I squeezed two lemons, I was surprised this recipe calls for only ⅓ of a cup of lemon juice. I was hoping this would use up a least a dozen of these babies. I contemplated following the recipe and not adding salt but just couldn’t do it.

After a couple of pinches, the dough is pressed into my largest lasagna pan, a free souvenir from opening a bank account in my Italian-American neighborhood. I decided to put parchment down first because my mama raised me right.

There were no instructions on how to tell when these are done, so I guess you just step into the terrifying breach.

imprecisely cut lemon bars

After precisely 20 minutes, the resulting bars had a crisp buttery crust that melted in my mouth, and a slightly chewy topping that was intensely sweet and barely tasted like lemons.

The bar base is pretty spectacular, and these were a hit with my friends, but I preferred the tart filling of Joanne Chang’s Lemon Lust Bars. That recipe calls for 14 lemons, which is just what I need to use up a few more of my citrus babies.

Next time I make lemon bars, I’m going to combine the bottom of this recipe, with the topping of Chang’s.

“Good Breeding” Lemon Squares

2 c. flour
2 sticks margarine
½ c. confectioners’ sugar
[I added ¼ tsp salt]
Melt margarine and then blend with flour and sugar. Pat into 9X13-inch pan. Bake 20 minutes on 350 F.

4 eggs
¼ – ⅓ c. lemon juice
4 Tbsp flour
2 c. sugar
½ tsp. Salt
1 tsp baking powder

Beat eggs and lemon juice. Sift other ingredients together. Add to eggs and lemon juice. Pour on top of crust while hot. Bake 25 minutes more at 350 F. When cool, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and cut into squares.

“Good breeding” is such a silly concept, with its implication that pedigree will equal upper class manners. My favorite trope about good breeding is the inconvenient heir, usually a middle-class man whose wealthier relatives wish he would go far far away, and leave them to burn money in peace. Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey is one of my favorite versions of this character, especially when he responds to his relatives’ aristocratic rituals with bemusement and exasperation.

In fact, I just finished knitting a lovely art deco sock pattern inspired by Matthew, Jimenez Joseph’s Crawley Socks. No one asked me for a knitting pairing with this recipe, but there you go.

An Unseen Attraction
A | BN | K | AB
My book suggestion to go along with these lemon bars is An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles. Clem Talleyfer runs a cozy boarding house in Victorian London. He’s carved out a predictable life away from his wealthy and disapproving relatives, when a murder mystery and a sexy taxidermist show up to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

Like these bars, Clem is addictively sweet. He and his gentleman caller have flirtatious conversations over tea in his private parlor. The only thing cozier would be if the two started knitting socks together.

Have you read any inconvenient heirs lately?

And more importantly, what lemon recipes should I try next?

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