Life / Food

It's hip to be square: An ode to an old-fashioned dessert

From church cookbooks to after-school snacks, sweet squares deserve a comeback

Sweet Potato Chronicles

Sure, squares are considered the domain of grandmothers and church cookbooks. But these somewhat frumpy delicacies have stood the test of time for a reason. All but the fanciest are faster and simpler than cookies, and all are satisfyingly chewy and extremely shareable. Yet squares have been supplanted by trendier fare: finicky macarons, over-iced and over-priced cupcakes and preposterous cronuts. We think the humble bar cookie deserves more love. Sometimes, cutting corners can be a good thing. Here are some favourite recipes to get you started.

Salted browned butter crispy rice treats

Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen.

Elena Seibert/

Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen.

Deb Perelman, the home chef behind the Internet sensation Smitten Kitchen, is an evangelist for this modernized version of a classic after-school snack. They take “five minutes, tops” longer than the traditional version, Perelman wrote, and if you’re willing to share, “get ready to make friends.”

• ½ cup unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan
• 1 (285-gram) bag marshmallows
• Heaping 1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
• 6 cups crispy rice cereal  

1. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan with 2-inch sides.
2. In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. Watch carefully. As soon as the butter takes on a nutty color, turn the heat off and stir in the marshmallows. Stir until the marshmallows are smooth.
3. Remove the pot from the stove and stir in the salt and cereal. Quickly spread into prepared pan. Cool before cutting into squares.

Fresh lemon bars  

Ceri Marsh and Laura Keogh

Ceri Marsh and Laura Keogh

These sunshine-hued, sweet-tart bars are a picnic standby. And they’re ideal for getting kids involved in the kitchen, Ceri Marsh of Potato Chronicles writes. Little hands can help with pressing the crust into the pan, cracking eggs and grating the frozen butter. And, it goes without saying, they’re pros at gobbling them down.

• 2 cups flour
• 1/3 cup wheat germ
• 1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
• 3/4 tsp salt
• 2 sticks frozen butter

• 1 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/3 cup flour
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 3/4 cups lemon juice (I used 4 Meyer lemons)
• 1 Tbsp zest
• 3 eggs
• 1 egg yolk

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9x13 glass pan with a bit of butter. Mix dry ingredients for the crust. Grate the sticks of frozen butter with a cheese grater. Toss the frozen butter curls into the flour mixture until you have a mealy texture. Press the loose dough into the pan and use your hands to flatten it. Chill for 15 minutes
2. Bake the crust for 15 to 18 minutes until just beginning to turn golden.

3. Mix sugar, flour and salt for the filling. Add lemon juice and zest and blend well. Whisk in eggs and the yolk. Gently pour filing mixture onto the hot crust. If you don’t pour a small stream, the weight of the filling will dent the crust.

4. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes until the filling has just set. Allow to cool completely before slicing into squares.

Chocolate almond toffee bars

Anna Olson

Whitecap Books

Anna Olson

These treats — which are similar to a coconut-laden southern speciality, the Hello Dolly square — are one of TV chef Anna Olsen’s most requested recipes.

• 1 1/2 cups rolled oats
• 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
• 1/4 tsp fine salt
• 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
• 1 cup Skor toffee bits
• 1 cup chocolate chips
• 1 cup sliced almonds
• 1 can sweetened condensed milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and line an 8-inch square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.
2. Stir the oats, graham crumbs and salt in a bowl to combine, then stir in the melted butter. Press the crumbly oat mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle Skor bits evenly on top, followed by chocolate chips and sliced almonds.
3. Pour condensed milk evenly over pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling.
4. Cool to room temperature in the pan, then chill for at least 4 hours before slicing into bars.

From In the Kitchen with Anna: New Ways with the Classics, Whitecap Books

Bonus recipe: Banana Blondies  

Jennifer Reese

Simon & Schuster Canada

Jennifer Reese

Jennifer Reese, author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, blogs about her cooking adventures – and parenting teens – at Her go-to square recipe, created by Aussie baker Dan Lepard, is “slightly tricky, but worth it.” Borrowing a phrase from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, she wrote on her blog that these sweets are the work of “our father below.”

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