My Aunt Donna died last week. I’ve started and stopped several different posts about it. There is a lot to say about her courageous battle with cancer, about how she lived her life on her own terms, and of course the things that got on my nerves that seem so petty now. There were poignant moments to commemorate—some sad and some joyful.
But I’m not up to the task of writing about life and death this week. The Irish side of me handles grief by finding something to laugh about and the Italian side of me uses food to handle strong emotions. So today, I’m going to write about something that combines both: Wake Cakes. That doesn’t sound very appetizing does it? Wake Cakes—blech. It sounds like some dry and crumbly Irish invention made with oats that need to be dipped them in whiskey to choke them down. That’s what you would think. But you’d be mistaken.
Wake cakes are lemon squares—delicate bars made with shortbread crust and lemon topping and sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. For years someone in my vast network of family and friends made lemon squares for the gathering after a funeral. Some resourceful ladies have been known to keep lemon squares in the freezer just in case an unexpected and unfortunate occasion comes up. So somewhere along the line those marvelous sweet and sour treats became known as “Wake Cakes”.
So when my mother asked if I had time to bake something for after the service, my mind went right to Wake Cakes. The lemon square recipes I had all called for an 8 x 8 pan. I can guarantee you, that does not make enough of these tasty morsels. So I did a little tinkering and came up with a larger version. Don’t wait until someone dies to try these out:
(aka Lemon Squares)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter cut into chunks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
finely shredded peel from one lemon
6 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice (1 1/2-2 lemons)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
additional powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 350º
Stir together 2 cups flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt.
Cut butter into the dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Press into an ungreased (really—don’t even use non-stick spray)13x9 inch pan.
Bake for 10-12 minutes
Add granulated sugar, lemon peel, and juice. Beat until smooth and slightly thickened.
In a separate bowl, thoroughly stir together 1/4 cup flour & 1/2 t. baking powder. Add to egg mixture and stir until just moistened.
Pour over crust layer and bake for 20-25 minutes.
Sift powdered sugar on top.
Cool completely and cut into squares. The first one or two bars are tricky to get out of the pan. Offer these less pretty Wake Cakes to anyone who may be helping in the kitchen. If you’re working on your own, eat them yourself. Calories don’t count when you’re grieving.