Summer has finally arrived here in the Great White North, and for me, few things say “summer” better than my homemade strawberry cake and the sweet-but-tart lemon brownies that I’m going to share with you today.
It’s funny how something that we experience as children can impact us as adults.
When I was very young, a trip North to visit my Grandma Niedzielski often meant a drive uptown to visit her best friend, Mrs. Kitaj.
There are a few things I really remember about this lovely, petite, heavily-accented, lady who always made me feel like I was a perfectly special little girl. Surrounding her home was a green fence. She always grew pansies in her front yard and encouraged me to pick a bouquet to take home with me every time I visited in the summer. She had a sweet little canary that was very shy of strangers, but I remember his cage hanging by the living room window, and seeing him fly about the house. And finally, every once in a while, Mrs. Kitaj would surprise me with THE most amazing cake that I’ve ever had.
All homemade from scratch, the cake was huge. Despite having multiple layers, it wasn’t super thick. There were layers of jelly sandwiched between the cake sections, and it was decorated to perfection in her homemade buttercream icing which she dyed light pink, green and yellow, with icing roses and pretty piping.
What I wouldn’t give to even see that cake and Mrs. Kitaj just one more time.
This is one of my fondest childhood memories — someone making this special cake for me. But of course, Mrs. Kitaj refused to share the recipe with anyone but her daughter. My grandma begged, my mom begged, *I* begged! But no. That cake was her special secret and it wasn’t going out of her family.
And I get that, I really do. I get that feeling sometimes when someone asks me to share a recipe with them, especially if it’s one that’s special to me for some reason. It sounds a bit odd when I say it out loud — that women feel a certain sense of ownership for such things. But looking back through adult eyes on my childhood summers at Mrs. Kitaj’s, I’ve realized that it’s a very unfortunate and selfish feeling to have.
Because you see, Mrs. Kitaj is gone now. And I just learned that so is her daughter, Mary. And when I’m gone, Mrs. Kitaj and her special cake will probably cease to be remembered outside of her immediate family. I don’t know if Mary shared the recipe with her daughters, but if she didn’t… then something truly special will die completely. And to me, that’s really, really sad.
People can be remembered in many different ways, including through a lowly recipe. My mom was very diligent when adding recipes to her recipe book — each one says who or where she got it from. And as an adult myself now, getting older, I appreciate the connection to the past, because it means that these people and this tiny part of their story will live on, at least for a short while longer.
So now when someone says, “I need that recipe!”, I ignore the momentary pang of selfish ownership and I think about how nice it will be for other people to enjoy something that I could share with them. And besides, a few years ago, someone was kind enough to share the base of this recipe with me! Thanks, Frank and Laura! 😊
I made a batch of these lemon brownies a few days ago, and after I posted a photo of them on Twitter, a follower messaged me asking for the recipe. And honestly, it’s such a GOOD recipe that now I want to share it with everyone!
They are the perfect summer treat — dense and chewy like a brownie, but still light, tart and refreshing. They go great with a cold glass of milk or a hot cup of tea. And don’t forget to add the homemade lemon buttercream icing — it really makes them!
Lemony Lemon Brownies
(single batch uses 3 large lemons 🍋🍋🍋)
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt
2-4 tbsp lemon juice*
All the zest of three lemons
Zest and juice lemons and set aside.
Beat together butter, sugar, eggs, flour and salt, whipping it well. Add zest and juice and incorporate.
Line an 8×8” baking pan with wax or parchment paper. (I like to oil the pan first so the wax strips stick better and don’t slide around.)
Pour batter into prepared baking dish, making the mixture as level as possible (a rubber spatula helps).
Bake in a preheated oven at 300º for 20 minutes. Don’t over-bake them!
** Note: Put the brownie pan onto a cold cookie sheet and bake them like that. This will give you the best result – cooked in the middle, but no scorched edges or bottom. This is probably the most important step of the recipe. The cookie sheet under your pan is the secret to the chewy brownie texture! Also, I’m typically a fan of baking on an insulated aluminum pan to help prevent scorching. But in this instance, bake time is calculated based on using just a regular old cookie sheet. I had to add time when I tried this with the insulated pan. **
Gently tug on the paper strips and then shake the brownie loose and invert onto a wire rack, then using a second wire rack (if you have one), turn them right-side up to cool. (Do try to be gentle with this as it’s highly susceptible to breaking when still warm.)
Once the brownie is completely cooled (I like to put it in the fridge — wire rack and all — to speed this up), ice it with the Lemon Buttercream Icing, cut and serve.
Lemon Buttercream Icing
1/4 cup softened butter
Add powdered sugar (approximately 1/2 cup) and small amounts of lemon juice until you have the desired amount of icing, and it’s the proper consistency. It shouldn’t be too thin or loose as you want it to be firm and not melty once the brownies are iced.
If you live somewhere hot, these lemon brownies can be stored in the fridge to keep the icing from melting. But in my opinion, they do taste better at room temperature. It’s their texture that makes them different from a lemon loaf or cake. They’re meant to be soft, chewy and velvety, melting in your mouth when you eat them. They’re still delicious and chewy out of the fridge, but I do prefer to eat them a little less chilly!
Also, this recipe doesn’t make a huge amount, but it’s easily doubled! You can either use two pans, and have two batches of thinner brownies (my recommendation), or you can just put the entire doubled batter into a single pan for thicker pieces that eat more like a piece of cake. Just double the cooking time to 40 minutes if you put double the batter in a single pan.
And a quick reminder, as I mentioned in my recipe post for Ginger Chew Cookies, the temp and time might need to be adjusted because no two ovens are the same. My oven tends to run a bit hot, so 300º might seem low to you. But regardless, if it’s necessary to make an adjustment, it’s better to cook these longer rather than hotter, in my opinion.
I’m all about lemon desserts, so tell me, readers, do you have a favourite treat that you enjoy in the summertime, lemony or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below! 🍋🍋🍋
*Update, December 2019: I’ve updated the recipe from 2 tbsp of lemon juice to read 2-4 tbsp. Recipes are something that can evolve over time, as you tweak and adjust to find the best possible taste. And I’ve been finding that I love these brownies even more with a larger amount of lemon juice. It’s not only enhanced the flavour, it’s also made them even more moist and chewy. So 2 tbsp is the minimum that you need, but I’d suggest you go ahead and add the full 4 for even better results!