top of page

When Life Gives You Lemon Bars

(by Laura Holtz)

Nothing tells a child “You are special” quite like a favorite confection prepared with purposeful, adoring intent. When you’re the beneficiary of a mother’s inspired recipe, you get more than just a delicious chocolate chunk cookie, a slice of apple crumble pie, or a piece of moist carrot cake—you receive a delectable hug, an edible love note. I explored this truth in my novel, Warm Transfer, although my fictional kitchen wizardess bears little in common with my own mother, a self-avowed anti-Betty Crocker, with one exception: Mom’s tangy lemon bars.

Growing up in the 1970s, my memories of Mom in the kitchen center more on her penchant for cleanliness than on anything resembling cooking. No one could wield a mop across a pebble-printed linoleum floor quite like her, and when it came to scour power, no scalded pot ring nor burnt-on casserole remains stood a prayer against Mom and her cherished SOS pads. What she lacked in culinary finesse, she more than made up for in spotlessness.

As gastronomic fortune would have it, my mother raised our family in Elmhurst, Illinois, during an era that perfectly matched her level of enthusiasm for cooking—a time that landed her directly on the crest of the processed food wave. The foundation of our every meal was either a can of Campbell’s soup, a frozen Stouffer’s entrée, or something that came in a box containing powdered cheddar cheese. Armed with a floral Crockpot and blocks of packaged frozen veggies, Mom could shortcut her way to dinner quicker than the snap of a Ritz cracker.

Yet once a year for my birthday, Mom made the ultimate sacrifice—she baked from scratch. The night before, I would spy two sticks of margarine softening in a Corning dish on the Formica countertop. That’s how I knew her work had begun. Between my bedtime and dawn, a 9” x 13” Pyrex containing a pale yellow slab would emerge from the oven. On birthday morning, I would pad down the carpeted stairs, and there they were, sliced into perfectly proportioned squares, generously dusted with confectioners' sugar. It’s conceivable that elves had been hard at work while I was sleeping, but everyone knows that elves would never have the capacity to leave a kitchen in such pristine condition.

Loving care, along with ReaLemon concentrate, was poured into those bars. A lemony curd with the perfect balance of pucker and sweet topped a shortbread crust with a melt-in-your-mouth finish. In the classroom, I distributed my birthday treats ceremoniously, one by one, on the school’s brown paper towels. It didn’t matter that the only other time her spatula was put to use was when Mom needed it to jimmy open the kitchen screen door as she swept the threshold. My mother loved me, and when life gave me lemon bars, Mom made sure there was enough for everyone.


Laura Holtz is the author of Warm Transfer, a novel of reinvention and joy after abuse. She lives in Chicago and can be found at

Lemon Bars

2 1/4 c. flour, divided

1 c. margarine, softened

1/2 c. confectioners sugar, plus additional for dusting

4 eggs

2 c. granulated sugar

1/2 t. baking powder

6 T. ReaLemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Using a pastry blender, mix 2 c. flour with the margarine and 1/2 c. confectioners sugar until crumbly.

Press into a greased 9 x 13 pan and bake for 25 minutes.

Beat eggs slightly.

Add 2 c. granulated sugar, 1/4 c. flour, baking powder, and ReaLemon juice.

Pour over crust and bake another 25 minutes.

Sprinkle with additional confectioners sugar.

Cut into squares while hot, and allow to cool before removing from pan.


bottom of page