FARGO — Summer gives me a hankering for all things lemony.

Smiling kiddos hawking lemonade are perched at every other corner. My mom makes my dad's favorite lemon meringue pie, which provides that perfect blend of tart-sweet citrus curd below a cloud of silky meringue.

And then there are lemon bars. My sister, Mabel, is actually the undisputed Lemon Bar Queen of the Swift household.

I don't know what Mabel does to create these addictive treats, as she seems to follow the basic template for the curd-atop-shortbread bar. I know she does insist on juicing and zesting real lemons and her bars have an extra-thick crust. In recent years, she has also started coating them with a thin, almond-spiked icing.

What a delicious way to gild the lily.

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As much as I love Mabel's bars, I've been looking for a fresh spin on a lemon-inspired "tray bake" (as the Brits so fancily call them). I may have found the perfect alternative in these cream cheese-topped treats from the Two Sisters cooking blog.

This version creates a lemon cake base, which is then soaked with a tart lemon syrup and topped with a tangy cream cheese frosting.

While giving it a test-drive, I made a few modifications to the Two Sisters' recipe, which included adding a little salt and almond extract to the batter, then using a lemon cream-cheese recipe I've used before.

The original recipe suggests spraying the pan with Pam or a similar non-stick spray, but I've found these sprays contain an accelerant that can sometimes cause baked goods to overbrown. I recommend using the old standards that my mom did: saturating a paper towel with oil or Crisco and swabbing the bottom of the pan. (Don't grease the sides. As my mom used to say: "How would you like to climb up a greasy wall?")

Also, when I ordered groceries, I specifically asked for regular cream cheese, but somehow wound up with Daiya's vegan cream cheese spread. I decided that knocking a few points off my cholesterol wasn't a bad idea, so mixed the vegan stuff with about 1/4 of a bar of leftover Philadelphia cream cheese. The result was a slightly runnier frosting. Still it was pretty good, considering that it was technically neither cream nor cheese.

Just don't tell my mom.

This amped-up lemon bar, with cream cheese frosting and a drizzle of tart lemon syrup, provides a nice summer alternative to traditional lemon bars. Tammy Swift / The Forum
This amped-up lemon bar, with cream cheese frosting and a drizzle of tart lemon syrup, provides a nice summer alternative to traditional lemon bars. Tammy Swift / The Forum

Lemon Squares with Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 2/3 cup oil
  • 2/3 cup lemon juice (preferably fresh-squeezed)
  • 2/3 cup evaporated milk
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 8 ounces of softened cream cheese (or vegan substitute, like Daiya)
  • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon of almond extract plus 2 to 3 teaspoons of lemon juice (add more, a teaspoon at time, if frosting is too stiff)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease bottom only of 9- by 13-inch pan with canola oil or Crisco shortening.

Add eggs, oil, sugar, evaporated milk, lemon juice, lemon zest and almond extract in a bowl and mix until completely incorporated.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt in separate bowl, then add to wet mixture and mix well.

Pour lemon bar batter into preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

While cake is cooling, make lemon syrup: Add 1/2 cup lemon juice to 1/2 cup sugar in small saucepan. Cook on medium-low setting, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and a light syrup is formed.

Use a toothpick or small metal skewer to poke holes all over top of cooled cake. Pour hot lemon syrup over bars, to taste. The more syrup, the more moist and tart the bars will be.

Prepare cream cheese frosting by beating together room-temperature cream cheese and softened butter until creamy. Gradually add in powdered sugar, beating all the while. Last, stir in almond and lemon juice. Frost cake and cut into squares. Keep refrigerated, as these bars are best chilled.

Reach Tammy Swift at tswift@forumcomm.com.