Lemon Chess Cake: My Mother’s Special Request

With my mom in Richmond

With my mom in Richmond

In between the time that people traded recipes over the back fence and the internet, newspapers often published recipe exchange columns for readers. For my mother, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran “Trading Secrets,” which let readers answer requests for everything from Greek Green Beans to Raised Doughnuts. It looks like the column became part of a Yahoo group, but then ceased in the early 2000s.

“Trading Secrets” was part of a long tradition. The history site Massachusetts Moments puts these columns in context by considering the history of the Boston Globe‘s “Confidential Chat”column, which originated under a different name in 1884. A promotional brochure from 1955 described The Chat as “everything of interest to women: food, housekeeping, clothes, children, in-laws, babies, gardens, love, marriage, interior decorating, and a thousand and one other subjects which intrigue the female mind and occupy the female time.” Though we’re thankful that “female time” modernized to include far more weighty topics, the Chat continued until 2006.

Though my mom was a more devoted newspaper reader than a recipe trader, she wrote in May, 1989 to “Trading Secrets” for a Lemon Chess Cake recipe and was rewarded with an answer from Betty of Blackstone, Virginia. Betty’s recipe comes from a Baptist church in Georgia, part of a collection of favorites from members there.

lemonWhat better dessert to make on Mother’s Day than the recipe my mom publicly requested? She would never sneer at its cake mix base as too much of a shortcut. Anything easy suits her just fine. I took the liberty of adding the zest of half a lemon to the filling to give it more zing, but I would put in the zest of a whole lemon next time. I would also use an electric mixer to make the recipe even easier to put together. The cake, a surprise taste of the past for my mom, is the way I wanted to celebrate the holiday this year after Skyping with my own children, who are too far away to bake anything for me.

Lemon Chess Cake (1989)lemon cake
Makes 24 squares

1 box yellow or butter cake mix
1 egg
1 stick margarine, softened (I used butter)
1 (1 pound) box confectioners’ sugar
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
3 eggs
2 teaspoons lemon juice or 1 teaspoon lemon extract
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
  2. For the crust: In a large mixing bowl, combine the cake mix, egg, and butter. Mix well. Press into an even layer in the bottom of the prepared pan.
  3. For the topping: In the same mixing bowl (unless you really want to dirty another), add the confectioners’ sugar, cream cheese, eggs, lemon juice or extract, and lemon zest. Mix well.
  4. Spread the topping evenly on the crust. Sprinkle with nuts if using.
  5. Bake for approximately 50 minutes until set in the middle and lightly brown on top. Cool and cut into squares.

About heritagerecipebox

I am named after my great-grandmother, who only prepared two dishes, according to anyone who remembers. Somehow I ended up with a cooking gene that I brought with me from Richmond, Virginia to my current home in Boston, Massachusetts. I have worked as a journalist and published three cookbooks plus a memoir and a novel. This blog gives me a chance to share family recipes and other American recipes with a past.
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