How to Make Lemon-Frosted Fruit Bars from the 1940s

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I found this vintage recipe in a Betty Crocker recipe book from 1943. I adapted it slightly to make these wholesome date nut bars with bright and lemony frosting.

Lemon Frosted Fruit Bars sliced and stacked on a white plateNancy Mock for Taste of Home

One might assume that the recipes of World War II-era America have no use today, but food shortages have folks reconsidering the lessons of years past. Now victory gardens have been resurrected and home cooks are learning to work with ingredients they have, like this liberty bread that can be made without yeast. While thumbing through one of my vintage cookbooks, I found this recipe for Lemon-Frosted Fruit Bars and knew I had to test this frugal treat!

The Story Behind This Recipe

stack of vintage cookbooks with vintage rolling pin and measuring cup on marble countertop backgroundNancy Mock for Taste of Home

I found the Lemon-Frosted Fruit Bars in a pamphlet-style cookbook from Betty Crocker titled Your Share: How To Prepare Appetizing, Healthful Meals with Foods Available Today. The recipe book was printed in 1943, shortly after the U.S. government began rationing foods like sugar and butter during World War II. Cookbooks like this helped households learn how to stretch limited rations.

The tips were especially helpful for saving sugar, with recipes like these bars that used dried fruit and molasses to add sweetness instead. The cookbook also shares an idea that’s decades ahead of today’s naked cakes: frost only the tops of cakes and bars to make sugar last longer.

Don’t miss this vintage recipe for Brooklyn Blackout Cake from Ebinger’s Bakery in New York.

How to Make Lemon-Frosted Fruit Bars

This recipe is adapted from the 1940s version to make a lighter and sweeter bar. For the topping, I used a half batch of this Cream Cheese Frosting with lemon juice and zest added in.

Ingredients

Lemon Frosted Fruit Bars ingredients laid out on marble kitchen countertopNancy Mock for Taste of Home

For the Bars:

  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup chopped dates
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

For the Frosting:

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest, about 2 medium lemons worth
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 to 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Editor’s Tip: Here are three easy ways to zest a lemon.

Tools You’ll Need

  • Silicone Spatula: This sturdy spatula will help you spread batter evenly in the pan.
  • Jelly Roll Pan: Reviewers on Amazon love the heft and durability of this 8×12 baking sheet.
  • Microplane: Every kitchen needs a Microplane to zest lemons and other citrus fruit!

Editor’s Tip: If you don’t have an 8×12 pan, use an 8-inch square pan. The bars come out thicker, but will still finish baking in 15 minutes.

Directions

Step 1: Blend the sugars and eggs

process shot of mixing sugars and eggs for Lemon Frosted Fruit BarsNancy Mock for Taste of Home

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line an 8-inch by 12-inch pan with parchment paper and spray the paper with nonstick spray.

Use a hand mixer or stand mixer to beat together the brown sugar, molasses and eggs for about 3 minutes, until they’re blended and light in color. Then, blend in the sour cream and vanilla extract.

Step 2: Add in the dry ingredients

Combine the flour, ginger, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl, then sift these dry ingredients into the bowl with the egg and sugar mixture. Mix everything together at low speed just until the dry ingredients are combined. Then, stir in the chopped dates and chopped walnuts.

Step 3: Spread in the pan and bake

spreading the Lemon Frosted Fruit Bars batter into a panNancy Mock for Taste of Home

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and use a spatula to spread it into an even layer. Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes; a tester inserted in the middle should come out with just a crumb or two. Place the pan on a cooling rack and let it cool to room temperature.

pan Lemon Frosted Fruit Bars cooling after bakingNancy Mock for Taste of Home

Step 4: Prepare the frosting

Beat together the softened cream cheese, softened butter, lemon zest, lemon juice and salt with a hand mixer in a medium bowl until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Gradually beat in confectioners’ sugar until the frosting is creamy and light.

Step 5: Cut and frost the bars

Once cool, remove the bars from the pan and peel off the parchment paper. Spread the frosting evenly over the top. Then, slice into 12 bars. (You can cut more smaller-sized bars. The original recipe slices them into 48!)

The bars can be stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. For the best flavor, let them come to room temperature again before serving.

Here’s What I Thought

one piece of Lemon Frosted Fruit Bar on a plate in foreground with sliced bars and vintage photographs in backgroundNancy Mock for Taste of Home

While these bars won’t win any prizes for “most decadent dessert,” they are a nice, modestly sweet treat. I initially tested the recipe with chopped almonds, but the softer, buttery texture of walnuts is definitely a better pairing with the chewy dates. The blend of fruit, nuts, molasses and ginger give them a bit of a holiday feel, too. The lemon frosting, however, is definitely what you would call “the icing on the cake” for these bars! The brightness of the lemon is wonderful with the dates and nuts, and make the bars feel less serious and more like a treat. My husband and I enjoyed these with afternoon coffee, and even for the occasional breakfast.

I made a couple of changes from the 1940s recipe, since when made as printed the bars were dense and heavy—or stodgy, as Great British Baking Show judges are fond of saying. Since we thankfully have no food rations holding us back, I increased the brown sugar and used two whole eggs instead of one yolk. I also added vanilla and bumped up the quantity of dates and ginger. The frosting in the recipe was a raw egg white whipped with confectioners’ sugar. I chose to skip this and used a tangy cream cheese frosting with plenty of lemon zest, but a buttercream frosting with zest would also be tasty on these bars.

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Nancy Mock
Discovering restaurants, tasting bakery treats, finding inspiration in new flavors and regional specialties—no wonder Nancy loves being a food and travel writer. She and her family live in Vermont and enjoy all things food, as well as the beautiful outdoors, game nights, Avengers movies and plenty of maple syrup. Find Nancy’s writing and recipes at her website: Hungry Enough To Eat Six.