Friday, July 17, 2009

I love a good running gag

We celebrated Collin's birthday a few days after returning from Japan. Tough act to follow, so we just kept things very low-key. As for birthday cakes, anything elaborate was out of the question. How could I hope to compete with the kinds of treats we had in Tokyo? I couldn't. Not yet, anyway. And I'm okay with that. Really, I am. Instead, I embraced the simplicity theme and made him lemon bars for his birthday dessert. Why lemon bars, you ask? Oh, I feel a story coming on...

I'm a sucker for grocery store sales - you know the kind where you get an additional discount when you purchase sale items in sets of 10? The kind where, if you do it right, you actually save more than you spend? I kind of get a thrill from those. Anyway, somewhere near the beginning of our marriage, I fell prey to one of these amazing sales and brought home a box of Krusteaz Lemon Bar Mix.

I don't like lemon bars. Not sure why, since I love everything else lemon-flavored. Every few weeks Collin would (half) jokingly remind me that there was a box of lemon bar mix in the pantry waiting to be made, especially when I would complain of a sweet tooth. They never got made while we were in L.A., so we brought the box along when we moved to Utah for a few months. Again, every few weeks that box would become the topic of conversation. Again, it simply languished on the pantry shelf. Just 8 short months after moving to Utah, we found ourselves with an unexpected offer to move to New Zealand for work. It was time to finish all the food in our pantry or else let it go to waste. I took a deep breath and brought out The Box late one night, determined to make my husband happy. As fortune and the FDA would have it, the lemon bar mix had long since expired. What were we doing schlepping that silly thing all over the country, anyway? I'm still not sure, but somewhere in a landfill, there's a sad little box of lemon bar mix that never fulfilled its destiny.

To you, dear box of lemon bar mix, I dedicate these far superior freshly made ones. Oh, and to my darling husband as well. Happy (now belated) birthday, and may all your lemon bars come true!

For the record, I still don't like lemon bars. But Collin loved them.

Lemon Bars
from Rose's Christmas Cookies, by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Shortbread Base
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (142 grams)
2 tablespoons powdered sugar (14 grams)
2 tablespoons superfine or caster sugar (granulated also works) (25 grams)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (180 grams)

Lemon Curd Topping
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar (150 grams)
3 fluid ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 1/2 large lemons) (90 mL)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (57 grams)
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (4 grams)
2 tablespoons powdered sugar for dusting (14 grams)

Line an 8x8-inch aluminum or glass pan with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugars. In a large bowl of an electric stand mixer, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. With your fingers or with the electric mixer, mix in the flour until incorporated. If using the mixer, add the flour in 2 parts.

Place oven rack in the middle of the oven.

Preheat oven to 325°F (300°F if using glass)/160°C (150°C)

Pat the dough into the prepared pan. Use a fork to prick the dough all over.

Bake for about 30 to 40 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned and the top is pale golden (do not brown).

While the shortbread is baking, prepare the Lemon Curd Topping.

Have a strainer, suspended over a bowl, ready near the range.

In a heavy non-corrodible saucepan, beat the egg yolks and sugar with a wooden spoon until well blended. Stir in the lemon juice, butter, and salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for about 6 minutes, until thickened and resembling hollandaise sauce, which thickly coats a wooden spoon but is still liquid enough to pour. (A candy thermometer will read 196°F.) The mixture will change from translucent to opaque and begin to take on a yellow color on the back of a wooden spoon. It must not be allowed to boil or it will curdle. (It will steam above 140°F. Whenever steaming occurs, remove the pan briefly from the heat, stirring constantly to prevent boiling.)

When the curd has thickened, pour it at once into the strainer. Press it with the back of a spoon until only the coarse residue remains. Discard the residue. Stir in the lemon zest.

When the shortbread is baked, remove it from the oven, lower the temperature to by 300°F. (275°F if using a glass pan), pour the lemon curd on top of the shortbread, and return it to the oven for 10 minutes.

Cool the lemon bars completely in the pan on a wire rack. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes to set the lemon curd completely. Place the powdered sugar in a strainer and tap the strainer with a spoon to sprinkle a thick, even coating, entirely covering the lemon.

Use the foil overhang to lift out the lemon bars onto a cutting surface. Using a long, sharp knife to cut the shortbread into bars, wiping the blade after each cut.

In an airtight container at room temperature, or in the refrigerator or freezer. Keeps 3 days at room temperature, 3 weeks refrigerated (individually wrapped in plastic wrap to prevent drying), or 3 months frozen.

Friday, July 10, 2009

No reason

We spent the past 10 days in Japan, going from one delicious food to the next and catching a few sights in between. We had sushi fresh from the big Tokyo fish market at 6:00AM

A few treats from Monsieurs Hermé and Ladurée (among others). How I've missed macarons!

We also managed to pick this little baby up in Tokyo. Pretty...

But enough of our gallivanting about the world. This isn't a travel blog! This is about senseless baking! Collin's birthday was on Tuesday. I made him lemon bars (more on that later) and had 5 egg whites left over, begging me to do something with them. Having just consumed an inordinate amount of macarons like the ones above, I didn't feel the need to make my own just yet. Plus, it had been raining on and off all week - very bad news for anything involving a meringue. Then again, there was that pavlova that I've been wanting to make for ages, and it wasn't raining today, and it was Friday...

Okay, so maybe there was no real good reason for making a pav today, especially given the high likelihood of failure from how humid it was. But you know what? I did it anyway. And you know what? It was good! The thin, delicately crisp outer shell yielded to a slightly chewy in-between area that finally gave way to a soft, pillowy marshmallow inside. The whipped cream was only lightly sweetened, so it balanced the sweetness of the meringue beautifully with the sweet-tart fruit. It took three people just a few hours to eat the whole thing, mostly because we just couldn't stop. I regret nothing.

adapted from Gourmet, April 2009

1 cup superfine (caster) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 large egg whites, room temperature
3 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar

1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
2-4 cups fresh fruit (any berry, kiwifruit, mandarins, etc.)

Preheat oven to 300°F (150 C) with rack in middle. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Whisk together superfine sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl.

Beat whites with a pinch of salt using an electric mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks. Add water (the peaks will disappear) and beat until whites again hold soft peaks.

Increase speed to medium-high and beat in sugar mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. After all the sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more.

Add vinegar and beat at high speed until meringue is glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes (longer if using hand-held mixer).

Gently spread meringue in a 6-inch (approx.) circle on parchment, making edge of meringue slightly higher than center (the "crater" is for cream and fruit). Bake until meringue is pale golden and has a crust, about 45 minutes. The outside will crack and be solid while the inside will remain marshmallowy.

Turn oven off and prop door open slightly with a wooden spoon. Cool meringue in oven 1 hour.

Beat cream with sugar until it just holds stiff peaks and spoon into meringue. Mound fruit and/or berries on top. Take lots of pictures, because this will likely become a scary mess once you cut into it - enjoy!