Lemon bars, or lemon squares, are popular dessert bars to make for bake sales, holidays, and birthdays. These delicious dessert bars are great to eat year round, and are often featured at many bakeries and coffee shops. Whatever you call them — bars or squares — you may have wondered about the origin of these luscious treats. The history of lemon squares doesn’t date as far back as you might think, although the ingredients were developed in Renaissance times.
Many cultures across history have enjoyed lemons and featured lemons prominently in their cuisine. Lemons have been used both to flavor savory dishes as well as being a main ingredient in cheesecakes, custards, candies, and baked goods such as pies. Lemon bars themselves likely find their roots in the Renaissance, as the main ingredients were often used during these times. Lemon custard was highly popular in this time period, sugar was often sprinkled on food, and shortbread crust had recently been developed.
Although the main components of lemon squares — shortbread and lemon curd — were popular during the Renaissance, putting them together in a layered bar form did not occur until the 20th century. Bar cookies, or squares, date back to the 1930s, but there is no specific person or place credited as the origin of bar cookies. Typically, bar cookies are prepared in a pan, baked in the oven, and cut into squares. American cookbooks at the time featured date bars as the earliest examples of squares. It’s likely that these evolved from other earlier dessert bar recipes such as brownies and fudge. As they gained in popularity, variations led to new recipes, such as peanut butter bars, chocolate coconut bars, chocolate cheesecake bars, toffee bars, pineapple bars, almond bars, apple bars, and the seven-layer bar.
The first known printed lemon bar recipe appears in the August 27, 1962 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, submitted by Mrs. Eleanore Mickelson for the column titled “Today’s $5 Favorite Recipe.” In stark contrast to the lemon squares recipes of today, Mrs. Mickelson’s recipe called for just two eggs and three tablespoons of lemon juice, and was made in a 9x9 pan. Lemon meringue pie may have served as the inspiration for the lemon square originally. Food historians can not identify the exact origin of lemon squares, so Mrs. Mickelson’s recipe submission to the Chicago Daily Tribune serves as the first known printed recipe.
In 1963, the R&D team at Betty Crocker Inc. published a lemon bar recipe very similar to Mrs. Mickelson’s, but omitting the flour for the curd. From then onward, lemon squares soared in popularity.