Cherry Shortbread Cake Squares

Phew. After a crazy two-week blitz of various familial houseguests, I'm happy to say that we are glowing from the enjoyment of lots of great meals (up yours, Calories!), sunny tourist-y outings (Dear San Francisco Weather: thank you for cooperating for once), and hours of laughing so hard that no sound comes out (wine + Taboo + people you've known your entire life = OMGAWESOME). Being surrounded by family for so many days is a rare and wonderful thing for us--we are all feeling so loved around here right now, not to mention that Little C finds me especially boring in the aftermath. But with that sort of flurry of activity comes exhaustion of the eye-crossing variety, and the need for insanely simple, but totally comforting and satisfying recipes. I give you Cherry Shortbread Cake Squares. With pie filling from a can. Don't hate--participate!

I know I've told you before about my mom being more of a great creative cook than a baker, but this recipe is one of the few sweet gems she would whip up from time to time. Like her awesome cheesecake that involves Bisquick, this recipe with its canned cherry pie filling may make some upper echelon food people raise an eyebrow. But to them I say, don't be a jerk. These are amazing.

And unto those food snobs I also say this: If you must, swap out the cherry pie filling for something fresh and seasonal. Like maybe a few slices of the cute little Italian prune plums that are so fleeting and perfect right now. Or gently cook some apple slices with a touch of cider and cinnamon to soften them a bit and use those. But I have to say, when I was tucking these sweet canned cherries and their vibrant, inexplicably satisfying goo into the batter in cheery little threesomes, it made me so flippin' happy. So I urge you to try that first, before you get all elitist on me. It's just that good.

However, it sort of doesn't matter what fruit you use here, because it's really the tender, buttery cake that's the star. Dusted with powdered sugar, it's like a confection meets cake. It makes me die a little just thinking about it. I also die a little when I think about how much walking, drinking and Little C nap-skipping we've done in the past two weeks, but that's neither here nor there.

Cherry Shortbread Cake Squares

I love adding a good dose of lemon extract (or zest) to the batter--the lemon lift goes so fabulously with the cherries. But if you try this recipe with fall or winter fruits, consider omitting the lemon extract and just use a tablespoon of lemon juice to add a bit of dimension without such a forward lemon flavor.

Because I rarely have two weeks worth of houseguests, I tend to halve this recipe and use a quarter-sheet pan (12x9-ish inches) instead of a half-sheet pan and it works beautifully (although you will have leftover pie filling). If you're making them ahead, dust them with powdered sugar just before serving. These are even better the next day.

Makes 2 dozen 3-inch squares

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice--see note)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 (21 ounce) can cherry pie filling

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a half-sheet pan (about 12x17 inches) with a 1-inch rim, or spray it with cooking spray, line it with parchment paper, and lightly spray the parchment, too.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the lemon extract, vanilla and salt. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Scrape down the bowl. On the lowest speed, stir in the flour. To avoid overbeating, stop mixing when there's a few streaks of flour left, and finish stirring the batter by hand.

Scrape the batter onto the sheet pan and smooth it into an even layer. Score the batter into 24 squares with a toothpick (don't worry about perfectly even squares as the lines will disappear during baking; it's just to make placing the cherries easier). Place 3 cherries in the center of every square.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Just before serving, cut into 24 squares and dust with powdered sugar. Store any leftovers in an airtight container with layers of waxed paper or parchment for up to 3 days.

CakeShauna Sever