Monday, September 14, 2009

Lemon Bars - pucker up

I can make all sorts of complicated desserts that take a ton of time mixing, baking, layering, frosting, chilling, decorating, etc and yet you know what is one of the most frequently requested baked good I’m asked for? Lemon bars. Nice, simple, uncomplicated lemon bars. What makes a good lemon bar? To me, they have to have just the right tartness and amount of lemon. Too often the lemon curd part of the lemon bar is too mouth-puckeringly lemony. If I wanted that much lemony taste, I’m better off just sucking a lemon. Or else the curd is too gelatinous. I’m not a big custard-y type dessert eater (notable exception: crème brulee but we’ll get to that later) so the perfect lemon bar has equal amounts of shortbread crust and lemon curd which is curd, not lemon gelatin. And a light sprinkling of powdered sugar dusted on top, not a whole blanket of snow.

I’ve tried a fair number of lemon bar recipes over the years but I always come back to the first one I remember making which is from the Land O Lakes Treasury of Country Recipes cookbook. I even remember when I first made this – I was newly graduated from UC Berkeley, living in San Francisco and working for PG&E. I brought these into the office and one of the ladies there enjoyed it so much she asked me for the recipe. I gave it to her and she made it but told me afterwards that hers “didn’t turn out” like mine. This was a good 18 years ago and I hadn’t had the baking experience back then that I have now but I remember being baffled. The recipe isn’t that hard. I just followed it and I assumed anyone else who followed it would also get the same results. Apparently not so. Looking back and over the years with making this recipe, I’ve never varied the ingredients or took liberties with the amounts but I have adjusted baking times based on the pans I’m using and the ovens I’m baking in. While baking is more of a science than cooking, there is also some art involved. My biggest secret is I hardly ever time anything. I don’t use a timer and I’m lucky if I remember to check the time when I put something in the oven. Or I check the time then forget what it is later on. The times in recipes are just guidelines. Everyone’s oven is different so you have to adjust baking time accordingly. Depending on what I’m baking, I go by appearance (for cookies) or the toothpick method (for brownies and cakes). If you’re more of a novice baker, you might want to use a timer to start with until you get more comfortable with how something should look when it’s done. I just wing it.

On the subject of sharing recipes: I used to be really zealous about guarding my recipes. It’s not like I had any wildly original concoctions either. Most of my recipes are straight out of dessert cookbooks that anyone can buy. I make the recipe once as is then I add my own notes of how it turned out, modifications that should be made and what I could do better next time. For most recipes, I don’t really drastically change them but I do figure out how to bake them and bake them well. I always felt bad if someone asked me for a recipe and I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) share it. Let’s face it – asking for someone’s recipe is the most sincere compliment they can give you that they liked what you made. It’s kind of a slap in the face if you say no, you won’t share the recipe. In my defense, I did have reasons at the time (beyond being young and selfish).

A) I thought I would someday write my own cookbook and if I gave all those recipes away now, who would buy my cookbook later? That was just self-preservation, right? While I would still like to publish my own cookbook “someday”, the reality is it would take a lot more baking experimentation than I do today (which is mostly weekend tinkering) to write a cookbook. It takes original ideas, foolproof recipes, multiple iterations of the same thing over and over again and a ton of other work. In essence, it’d be a full-time job and frankly, I already have one of those.

B) The young and selfish part – I put in a lot of work in trying out many different recipes of something. For example, I went through a lot of lemon bar recipes to settle on the original one as the best. For someone to ask me to just hand it over felt like I was working for them for free and making it easy for them to get a great recipe. Where were they when I had to fit a Costco run into my busy schedule because I’d run out of butter and eggs? Where were they when I had to fork over $1 per lemon when I couldn’t get to Costco and had to succumb to Safeway’s or Lucky’s exorbitant grocery store prices? Okay, it sounds kinda dumb, childish and bratty when I write it out like that but that’s how I felt.

C) Too much pride in my baking – I don’t mean this in a narcissist way but I take a lot of pride in my baking hobby/passion/obsession and I love being able to provide baked treats for everyone. In my younger days, I was known for a chocolate caramel brownie recipe and I was very proud of being able to bake those brownies because, while the recipe seemed really simple, it took a lot of effort and months of trial and error to get it right. To this day, if I go too long without making them, I forget all the little tricks I used to get them right and I’ll mess up the recipe. It’s still good and if you’ve never had the “perfect” version, it’s just fine since you don’t know how much better it could be. I once made the “mistake” of giving that recipe to someone. She, in turn, started bringing them to the same gatherings I would go to and taking credit for my recipe. I cringed whenever I saw her passing off “my” brownies as hers, especially if they weren’t as good as I could have made them. That probably sounds narcissist. I don’t mean it to be. I also had other issues with this person. Think of the movie “Single White Female” and you’ll know where I’m coming from – the brownie thing was just the tip of the iceberg with this one.

In any case, for the most part, I’ve been able to let go of those hangups and am able to share recipes more freely. One of my favorite chef instructors at the Culinary Institute of America said he doesn’t see why people wouldn’t share recipes. Everyone makes things differently and recipes are meant to be shared. He’s right. I can attest some of my favorite recipes are from people who have shared them with me so I can do no less than to share what I have. I constantly, constantly have people ask me for my recipes and what I try to do is ask for a favorite recipe of theirs in return. Not to give something with strings because if they don’t have one, I still give them my recipe. But it’s my way of collecting different recipes that have people’s personal recommendation behind them which all of my recipes do.

One last thing on recipe sharing – I always share the recipe exactly as I make it. I’ve heard of people who don’t want to share their recipes changing the ingredients or leaving something out so that they’re not really giving out their true recipe. I don’t do that. Like I said, it’s a compliment to be asked for a recipe so giving them an altered one seems like returning a compliment with the insult of dishonesty. I’d rather someone tell me they’d rather not share a recipe than give me an inaccurate one. So if I give you a recipe and it “doesn’t turn out" like mine, I can honestly tell you that was the recipe I used. Ovens are different, quality of ingredients used might be different, baking steps taken might be done differently – there are a whole myriad of reasons why the recipe didn’t turn out exactly the same as mine but it won’t be because I didn’t give the same recipe I used.

Lemon Bars
1 1/3 cups flour
¼ cup sugar
½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 tbsp lemon juice
powdered sugar

1. Heat oven to 350°F. In a small mixer bowl, combine all crust ingredients. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until mixture is crumbly (2-3 minutes). Press on bottom of 8” square baking pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.
2. Meanwhile, in small mixer bowl combine all filling ingredients. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often until well mixed. Pour filling over hot crust. Continue baking for 18-20 minutes or until filling is set. Sprinkle with powdered sugar; cool.

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