Anatomy of a Classic

Tonya Council’s Strawberry-Lemon Bars

Spring berries add a touch of pink and a sweet balance to this citrusy dessert

A plate of lemon bars on a plaid background with a bowl of sugar and strawberries

Photo: Johnny Autry

Tonya Council isn’t one to leave good enough alone. She likes to keep tinkering in the kitchen until she discovers something great. It’s a trait she learned at her grandmother’s elbow. It didn’t hurt that her grandmother was Mildred Council, the woman most people who know anything about Southern food called Mama Dip. Since her passing, in 2018, generations of offspring have kept her long-standing Chapel Hill, North Carolina, restaurant going and branched out to create their own successful food businesses. “She raised me, so I was always by her side,” Council says. “I caught the bug that way.”

Stay in Touch with G&G
Get The Skillet, our weekly food and drink newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

An entrepreneur in her own right, with an online cookie business and a retail shop in Raleigh, Council opened a new bakery, Tonya’s Cookies & Bakeshop, in Chapel Hill last November. One of the stars is the pecan crisp cookie she developed more than a decade ago by fooling around with her grandmother’s pecan pie recipe. After her grandmother tasted the cookies, she encouraged Council to get them out into the world on her own, which is exactly what she did. “Don’t leave here,” she told her granddaughter, “but go off and do a little and come back.” Council’s big break came when Oprah Winfrey included the cookies on her list of Favorite Things in 2021.

Another treat that flies out the door at Council’s new bakery? Her strawberry-lemon bars, which started out as a favor for a friend who requested plain old lemon bars at her wedding. Ever the tinkerer, Council added the strawberries as a nod to spring and her friend’s love of the color pink, balancing the tartness of the lemon curd with the sweetness of ripe berries. “You could play around and use any citrus,” she suggests. Orange could work well, she says, though it’s not her favorite. Lime too.

photo: Johnny Autry

A blender is essential. It makes mixing the curd a snap and gives it a particular silkiness. (Council also runs her cheesecake filling through the blender for a similar effect.) To make it easier to cut neat, clean squares, she recommends lining the pan with parchment paper to lift the bars before slicing, keeping it long enough so that some hangs over the edges. Parchment can be tough to tame, so she uses a few shots of baking spray as a sort of glue to hold it down before adding the shortbread crust, which she gently pats into place. Those are just some of the many tricks she picked up from Mama Dip.

“I learned everything in that kitchen,” Council says. “Mama Dip has been opening doors for me from the start.”


  • Strawberry-Lemon Bars (Yield: 12 large or 24 small bars)

  • For the shortbread crust

    • ¾ cup butter, softened to room temperature

    • ½ cup confectioners’ sugar

    • 2 cups all-purpose flour 

    • ¼ tsp. salt

  • For the filling

    • 1 cup fresh lemon juice 

    • 3 tbsp. lemon zest

    • ¾ cup chopped fresh strawberries 

    • 1¾ cups granulated sugar 

    • 6 large eggs 

    • ½ cup all-purpose flour 

    • ½ tsp. baking powder 

    • ¼ tsp. salt

  • For serving

    • Confectioners’ sugar 

    • Chopped strawberries 

    • Pinch of sugar 

    • Fresh mint leaves


  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch pan lightly with cooking spray. Take a sheet of parchment paper longer than the pan and press it lengthwise onto the bottom. Crumpling the paper and smoothing it out before fitting it into the pan can help. There should be enough parchment hanging over the edges to easily lift the dessert from the pan.

  2. Make the crust: Using a stand mixer or a medium bowl and a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add flour and salt, and mix just until the dough comes together. Scoop the mixture into the pan and gently press it into an even layer. (A little flour on your fingers helps.) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, just until it turns golden brown. Set the crust aside to cool. Reduce oven to 300°F.

  3. Make the filling: Combine lemon juice, zest, strawberries, and sugar in a blender and blend until smooth. Add an egg, blend until smooth, then repeat with each egg, making sure each is incorporated before you add the next. Add flour, baking powder, and salt, and blend until smooth.

  4. Pour the filling onto the shortbread crust and bake for about 40 minutes or until the center of the filling is set. Cool completely, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

  5. To serve: Use the parchment to lift the dessert onto a cutting board. Using a sharp knife (and a ruler if you really want to be precise), cut into 12 or 24 squares and arrange the bars on a platter. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. Toss chopped berries in a small amount of sugar. Garnish each bar with chopped berries and mint leaves.




Hometown: Chapel Hill, North Carolina


What she would grab if the kitchen were on fire: Her grandmother’s cast-iron skillet. “That’s how we fry pork chops.”


Advice to up-and-coming entrepreneurs: “I always tell people to filter advice. Someone might say it’s not going to work, but hard work will make it work.”


Illustration: Lara Tomlin