The taste of lemons is the quintessential taste of summer. (As is the taste of barbecue, the taste of ice cream, the taste of fresh berries and cherries and peaches …). However, this recipe is not so much about capitalizing on fresh lemons as it is about making something quick, easy and tasty enough to impress the ladies of my book club, who are taking advantage of the summer weather to host an outdoor gathering this week.
I did what I always do in these circumstances, which is to think about what I could pick up at the grocery store on the way there at the very last minute, making me at least 10 or 15 minutes late. Then I thought about the delicious homemade things that all the other ladies bring to book club and felt ashamed of myself. Considering that I write articles about making things from scratch, or at least semi-scratch, it behooved me to make more of an effort.
I frantically rifled through my recipe boxes and saw a yellowed index card adorned with my mom’s penciled handwriting. “LEMON LUSH,” it read in capital letters across the top. Two or three stains of indeterminate origin blurred some of the listed ingredients. I was immediately intrigued because something lemony sounded like just the ticket and anything called “lush” brought to mind an abundance of the six food groups: fruits (lemons), vegetables (ginger, in a stretch), grains (flour), dairy (cream cheese, whipped cream), protein (nuts) and instant pudding. I’m checking all the nutritional boxes!
This is one of those beloved midcentury recipes that makes unashamed use of prepared ingredients. It’s a three-layer dessert that approximates lemon bars without ever juicing a lemon — though I decided to jazz it up where I could with fresh lemon and ginger, because (and I think I may have mentioned this once or twice) I love ginger. I will give you the recipe as my mom wrote it, but I will also give you my ostensible improvements.
Blend 1 stick butter (or margarine, if that’s your thing) with 1 cup flour. Add ½ cup finely chopped nuts. The recipe doesn’t specify what kind; I imagine pecans or almonds would be best, but since I already had a bagful of walnuts in my pantry, that’s what I used. I crushed them in a baggie with a hammer before adding them to the flour and it was most therapeutic. I also added 1 tablespoon of grated lemon zest, a teaspoon of vanilla and a teaspoon of powdered ginger. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees and allow to cool completely.
Next, blend 1 8-ounce package of cream cheese with 1 cup powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice or the juice of half a fresh lemon. My mother’s recipe also calls for 1 cup Cool Whip, but I skipped the nondairy whipped topping in favor of the real deal, righteously whipping up a pint of heavy cream, a quarter-cup of sugar and a little vanilla. “I’m so authentic!” I thought, before the cream started to curdle in on odd way, the solids completely separating from the liquids. Did I just make butter? Or perhaps I should have washed the cream cheese and lemon juice off the mixer before whipping the cream. It’s a mystery. Anyhow, I figured that once the whipped cream was blended with the cream cheese, no one would be the wiser. I added probably closer to 2 cups of curdled whipped cream (or butter?) and blended it thoroughly with the cream cheese. My secret will never be discovered.
I spread the cream cheese-and-cream mixture onto the cooled crust, but it was still a little soft. I stuck it in the freezer to firm up before adding the top layer, otherwise I’d have Lemon Mush instead of Lush. I let it freeze for about an hour, then mixed 2 3½-ounce packages of instant pudding with 3 cups cold milk. Confession: Even though mom’s recipe calls for two packages of lemon pudding, I used 1 package of lemon pudding and 1 package of vanilla pudding because I goofed and only got 1 package of lemon pudding at the store. Fortunately, I had some vanilla pudding in the pantry and lemon is just as yummy when it’s mixed with vanilla, right? I also added 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger and 1 teaspoon lemon extract for extra lemony flavor.
The pudding wasn’t setting very well, but it was thick enough to spread over the cream cheese layer. Mom’s recipe said that the dessert can either be chilled or frozen, so I opted for frozen in order to avoid serving the book club lemon soup.
I’d intended to add another layer of whipped cream before leaving for book club, but I didn’t think the curdled cream would look too appetizing, though I suppose I could have called it buttercream frosting. I acceded to the spirit of the recipe and slathered on some Cool Whip. I dusted it with lemon zest and, because I was feeling a little nutty, a sprinkling of crushed walnuts. In a final indignity, I snagged my new blouse on a lemon stem. That’s what I get for authenticity.
I brought the lemon bars to book club and I wasn’t even late. You may be wondering if the other ladies liked my Lemon Lush, and the answer is yes, I think so, though the chardonnay may have overridden everyone’s natural good taste. Cheers, ladies! Next month I’m bringing chips and dip.