Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares

 

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My sister Abby used to make lemon squares. As a tween, they were her flourish. She would make them, over and over, for almost any occasion. She pulled out the recipe whenever she needed to impress. She made them for family parties, and for teachers. Sometimes she’d make them just to make them. They were always delicious and always devoured, no matter how set or loose the filling was. Abby developed a habit (which she still has) of not measuring when she baked, which meant the same results were never repeated twice.

Neither she nor I can remember which cookbook she used, but I have a feeling it was found in one of two- either the cheerful, red and white checked Betty Crocker, a binder disguising itself as a cookbook; or the stately, encyclopedic Good Housekeeping with its torn cover and pictorial index filled with unmistakably 80s food photography. There’s a chance too that it came from the recipe box stuffed with family favorites, but I doubt it. No one else in my family made lemon squares. Those were Abby’s alone.

Abby lives in Oakland now. Part of being an adult is the missing. There’s nostalgia for what you had, but also a profound sense of loss for what you could have had. Right now life has us in two very different parts of the country, and we’re not able to visit often. But the relatively recent miracle of the internet means we’re still connected. We Facetime and email and tag each other on Instagram. And food, while still miraculous but much more ancient, can bring us together in other ways.

These lemon squares remind me of Abby’s, but they’re not quite the same. Hers were exactly sweet enough for preteens, with a gooey filling and crumbly bottoms. The filling for these lemon squares is creamy instead, and the sweetness is tempered by a flurry of thyme and the floral notes of grapefruit juice. The crust is essentially a shortbread that’s patted into the  pan and then par-baked. And, unlike Abby, I measure while making my lemon squares. I suggest using weight measurements for the greatest precision, but volume works too. Just as long as you use some form of measurement. Please.

Returning again to the miracle of food, this is where we were and where we are. My sister’s favorite childhood dessert, constructed with my pastry training and the sun-filled ingredients that populate her current home. It’s transportive- keeping us connected even when the distance feels insurmountable.

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Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares

These lemon squares will absorb any powdered sugar you sprinkle onto them. I would advise waiting until the last moment to dust with powdered sugar in a decorative flourish.

makes 24 bars

adapted from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark

1 1/2 cups (195 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (55 grams) confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (170 grams) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed

1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon finely minced thyme
2 tablespoons (16 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup grapefruit juice

Confectioner’s sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a large bowl combine the flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt. Add the butter in, and toss to distribute and coat in the flour mixture. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter into the flour for about 5 minutes, until the butter is well distributed and the mixture comes together when squeezed. Turn the dough out into a 9 by 13 inch baking pan and pat it down. The dough should make one even layer in the bottom of the pan. Bake until golden and set, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and set aside.

While the shortbread is baking place the sugar into a medium bowl. Rub into the sugar the lemon zest and the chopped thyme until the sugar is fragrant and evenly speckled. Whisk into the sugar the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, lemon juice, and grapefruit juice. Pour into the sugar mixture, and whisk until smoothly combined. Pour the lemon filling over the baked shortbread crust.

Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is just set, about 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, then cut into squares. Top with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.

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Galentine’s Day Buckwheat Waffles with Chocolate Sauce and Orange Whipped Cream

These waffles were photographed in my dear friend Danielle‘s kitchen. Danielle and I met the first day of college. We lived directly across the hall from each other which made it quite convenient that we saw each other a lot. She was the person who told me to read Virginia Woolf for the first time, who started a poetry club called Dead Poet’s Society our sophomore year (we would go and read poetry outside), who describes her fashion sense as “third grade cool”, who still goes by the nickname Dani Unicorn, and who broke her promise to Aaron by telling me he liked me when we were freshman. She’s a model for showing up every day with creative work and the most Gryffindor person I know. When we got married the only reason she wasn’t a bridesmaid is that she couldn’t get away from her Peace Corps service. And she saw nothing weird or abnormal with me asking her to text me a picture of her kitchen table on a whim.

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Leslie Knope (#Knope2020) from Parks and Recreation created Galentine’s Day to celebrate all the awesome ladies in her life. Galentine’s Day is for the women you call “beautiful and poetic land mermaids” and “strong, sensative musk oxes” and such. Female friendships are such a valuable thing, and I like that there’s a holiday, no matter how fictitious, to celebrate them. For a long time I didn’t feel like I understood friendship, not really. It was always difficult to make friends. Finding your place, especially as a kid, is scary and difficult, but when you find the right people? It’s perfect. Why wouldn’t you celebrate that?

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In honor of Galentine’s Day we have waffles. Buckwheat waffles, because I love the earthy, almost beer-y flavor of the buckwheat and all my favorite baked goods have some interesting flours. Whipped cream and chocolate sauce, because Leslie wouldn’t have them any other way. Orange segments for the reassurance that we’re eating fruit at breakfast (and because orange, chocolate, and buckwheat are as good friends as Leslie and Ann), and chocolate shavings because if there’s ever a time to eat chocolate for breakfast, it’s Galentine’s Day.

Danielle, you beautiful minx, thank you for letting me invade your home and morning. Happy Galentine’s Day. Love you girl.

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Buckwheat Waffles with Chocolate Sauce and Orange Whipped Cream

This batter will look quite wet, which is a good thing as buckwheat flour is dryer than all-purpose flour. Because the egg whites are folded in the batter should be made into waffles immediately. If you delay, the batter will fall and that would make sad waffles. These keep well frozen, and can easily be warmed back up in a toaster oven. I’ve learned two tricks to make these waffles crisp and caramelized and fantastic. The first is to cook them on high- preferably the highest setting your waffle maker can handle. And second is to brush the waffle iron with melted butter in between waffles, even if the waffle iron is non-stick. Those two tricks taken together make for crispy edges and a soft interior, and that contrast is what truly makes waffles great.

Makes about 6 waffles

1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (65 grams) buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon (4 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) sea salt
2 eggs, separated
1 cup (250 milliliters) whole milk
1/2 cup (120 grams) whole yogurt
1/4 cup (60 milliliters) maple syrup
2 tablespoons (25 grams) butter, melted, plus more for the waffle iron
1 tablespoon (15 grams) cane sugar

To serve:

Orange Whipped cream (recipe below)
Chocolate sauce (recipe below)
Orange segments
Shaved dark chocolate (use a vegetable peeler to shave the chocolate)

In a large bowl combine the all-purpose flour, buckwheat flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together, and set aside.

In a medium bowl whisk together the egg yolks, milk, yogurt, maple syrup, and butter until smooth. Add to the dry mixture, and whisk until smooth.

In another medium bowl place the egg whites. Use a whisk attachment to beat the egg whites at medium-high speed to medium peaks. Once the egg whites keep their shape but the tips flop over when the beater (turned off!) is lifted, sprinkle in the sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Fold the stiff beaks into the rest of the batter with a rubber spatula, being careful to only stir as much as necessary and no more.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Place a cookie sheet with a cooling rack on top inside of the oven.

Heat your waffle iron on the highest setting. Once it’s nice and hot brush the iron with melted butter, and then scoop the batter into the iron and press. Every iron is different- mine works best with 1/2 a cup of batter, but play with yours to find your ideal amount. Cook the waffle until it smells toasty and golden. For me, that’s longer than when my waffle iron says it’s finished. Place on the rack in the oven to keep warm, and repeat with remaining batter.

Serve waffles warm, topped with orange whipped cream, chocolate sauce, orange segments, and chocolate shavings.

Orange whipped cream

If you’d like a stronger flavor, you could add in a hit of orange juice or orange liquor.

1 cup (250 milliliters) heavy cream
zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon (15 grams) cane sugar

In a medium bowl beat everything together on medium-high speed using a hand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat until the cream is softly whipped, when the cream balls together but is still loose.

Chocolate Sauce

This chocolate sauce is just a thin chocolate ganache. And now that you know how to make it, you can play with all sort of ratios to turn into fillings for chocolate, frostings, and sauces. This is texturally the best the day it’s made,  but it makes a very good hot chocolate. (Just warm your desired amount with your milk of choice.)

1 cup (250 milliliters) heavy cream
4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) maple syrup
1/4 heaping teaspoons (1/4 + 1/8 teaspoon) sea salt

Place the cream into a small pot. Bring the cream to a simmer, then remove from heat.

Place the chopped chocolate in a small bowl. Pour the warm cream over the chopped chocolate, then use a whisk to quickly stir the cream and chocolate together. Don’t stop whisking until the chocolate is all melted and the sauce is smooth and emulsified. Stir in the maple syrup and salt. Taste for seasonings, and adjust as necessary.

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Lavender Sablés

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Let’s talk about cookies.

Cookies are joy incarnate. Some of them are homey, like a perfectly underbaked chocolate chip cookie. Some are more exuberant, such as the circa 2004 the iced monster cookies. Some cookies veer just to the edge of healthy, such as an oatmeal raisin. And some cookies are elegant, the macaroons and financiers.

No matter the identity a cookie comes in, they have several advantages over other desserts. A cookie always feels appropriate, whether eaten with coffee or at the end of a formal dinner. Cookies are small in size. Now, this may not sound like an advantage. But there are circumstances in which one wishes to have just a bite of a sweet treat and other circumstances when one wishes to (perhaps stress) eat a lot of things. The small size of cookies lends them perfectly to both circumstances. Cookies can be baked by the dozen and then given as gifts, and there’s no awkwardness of giving someone half a cake.

And trust me, it’s quite awkward. I once gave my friend Elliott two-thirds of a pie when he moved into a new apartment. As appreciative as he was, I still wince when remembering that gift. Cookies would have been a much more appropriate.

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I appreciate all manners of cookies, and these lavender sablés are my current crush. Sablés are the French answer to shortbread, buttery and sandy but a bit less dense with the addition of egg yolks. Sablés are elegant, the sort of cookie that would fit on a china saucer or a dessert plate after a long meal, but they are dead easy. The lavender adds a subtle floral note, present enough to note but light enough that the sablés tastes clean instead of heavy. They take no great skill and only a little patience to make, and the result is lovely. The most difficult part is waiting for the dough to chill before baking.

And that comes to the final advantage of cookies. Cookies are simple in a way that other baked goods are not. These sablés spend about 5 minutes in a mixer, then are shaped into logs, chilled, rolled in sugar, and baked. There’s no mixing pie crusts or waiting for cakes to cool. Cookies may never be as over the top as cupcakes can get, and they may not get internet-famous as a result, but cookies are better for that. There’s no gimmicks when it comes to cookies- they’re simple, and simply good.

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Lavender Sablés

Makes between 30-40 cookies

adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

Sablés would take all manner of flavors easily- I could imagine these with lemon zest, coco nibs, or even thyme if lavender isn’t your thing. Be certain to use food grade lavender buds- I found them with the dried herbs in my local grocery store, but if that’s not your reality it’s an easy thing to find through spice shops and online. Finally, the baking time might vary depending on how thick you’ve rolled your cookies. Just be careful to watch them and pull them once the edges are golden.

1 tablespoon dried lavender
8 ounces butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) cane sugar
1/4 cup (30 grams) confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon dried lavender
1/4 cup (45 grams) turbinado sugar
1 egg yolk

Place the dried lavender in the bowl of a mortar and pestle. Bash it until its light and powdered, then set aside.

In a large bowl use a hand mixer to beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the bowl as necessary. When the butter is smooth, add in the lavender, the sugars, and the salt and turn down the mixer speed. Stir, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until the butter and sugar is well-mixed but not fluffy, about a minute. Add the egg yolks and beat until just combined.

Turn the mixer down as low as it will go and add the flour. Mix just until the flour is absorbed by the dough. At this point I finished the dough bringing it into a ball using my hands, and stirring in any flour in the bottom corners manually. Divide the ball of dough in half.

Place a piece of plastic wrap about 18 inches long on a clean surface. Place one of the balls onto the plastic wrap, and cover with plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to shape the ball into a rectangle at least 9 inches long by evenly pressing the dough out, then roll the wrapped dough to create a cylinder. Repeat with another piece of plastic wrap and the second ball. Store both pieces of dough in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or up to 3 days.

When you are ready to bake your cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl mix the lavender and the turbinado sugar. Spread the mixture out onto a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat. Remove your dough from the refrigerator, and unwrap it. Brush the log all around with the egg yolk, then roll in the lavender sugar. Press more sugar onto the edges as necessary. Cut the logs into 3/4 inch slices, trimming the edges as necessary. Transfer to cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 14 minutes, rotating halfway, until the edges are golden and the centers are just set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the cookie sheets. The cookies will keep in an airtight container for a few days.

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Smoked Salt and Rye Chocolate Chip Cookies

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My father’s hopes travel with me
years after he died. Someday
we will learn how to live. All of us
surviving without violence
never stop dreaming how to cure it.
What changes? Crossing a small street
in Doha Souk, nut shops shuttered,
a handkerchief lies crumpled in the street,
maroon and white, like one my father had,
from Jordan. Perfectly placed
in his pocket under his smile, for years.
He would have given it to anyone.
How do we continue all these days?

“What Changes” by Naomi Shihab Nye (found here)

Last night at work I send out dessert to two woman sitting at the bar. They were crying. I told their server they deserved desserts because they looked as sad as I felt. They looked up at me, eyes bright with tears, and we communicated through nods and hand gestures- I see you. I understand your pain. We will get through this. We are stronger together.

Uncertain days lay ahead. I hope that we can move together in the direction of love and justice. I hope for an end to the ugliness. We have a time of protest and uncomfortable conversations and court cases coming. I hope that in four years we have healed this brokenness. I pray that we remember that all women and men are created equal, and that we are all endowed with inalienable rights. And I pray we always act as such.

I take comfort in baking and feeding people. It is the best way I know to love people. I think we’ll be needing a lot more love, in all its guises, in the coming months.

Stay safe, stay strong.

Smoked Salt and Rye Chocolate Chip Cookies

This is an adaptation of my favorite chocolate cookie recipe ever. If you’re skeptical of white chocolate, I understand. But the white chocolate creates a deliciously creamy, almost marshmallow-y pocket in the cookies that’s too good to pass on. Smoked salt is relatively easy to find, but if you can’t find it and still want a smokey flavor I would substitute the rye whiskey with Scotch.

adapted from Date Night In by Ashley Rodriguez

Makes 2 dozen cookies

8 tablespoons (113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons (30 grams) turbinado sugar
2 tablespoons (30 grams) cane sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (190 grams) dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon rye whiskey
1 1/2 cup (200 grams) All-Purpose flour
1/4 cup (30 grams) rye flour
3/4 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) smoked salt, plus more for sprinkling
8 ounces (225 grams) mixed dark and white chocolate chunks (about half of each)

Preheat your oven to 350. Line 2 cookie trays with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl using a hand mixer beat together the butter and the three sugars on medium-high for 5 minutes, until the butter is fluffy and the color is lighter. Add the egg and the rye whiskey, and mix until just combined.

In another bowl whisk together the all-purpose flour, the rye flour, the baking powder, and the smoked salt. Add to the butter and mix together on low until the flour is just combined. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the chocolate chunks.

Drop the cookies using spoons into tablespoon and a half balls onto the cookie sheet, making sure to space them an inch apart. Sprinkle each ball of dough with a pinch of smoked salt. Bake for 12 minutes, rotating halfway through. Remove from the oven when they’re just starting to set around the edges. Let cool on the tray.

The cookies will keep well, stored in an airtight container, for three days.

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Chocolate Buckwheat Cookies with Orange from “Alternative Baker”

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Aaron’s mom is (and has been) under doctor’s orders to avoid gluten. It’s an order she often breaks. The woman’s got a serious sweet tooth, and hasn’t found gluten-free desserts she likes. Packaged gluten-free desserts tend to be weirdly gritty and either bland or with a funky aftertaste. And they’re expensive. Because of this, I’ve been trying to stockpile gluten-free desserts recipes. The best results have been with desserts that are naturally gluten-free. But there are only so many times one can serve meringue cookies. And adapting recipes that generally use copious amounts of all-purpose flour is a little more than a little intimidating.

That’s why I was so happy to find Alternative Baker by Alanna Taylor-Tobin. Alanna uses gluten-free flours joyfully, paying close attention to texture and taste.  Alanna’s recipes are the sort I want to make regardless of my relationship to gluten. I’ve already bookmarked two desserts for Thanksgiving with Aaron’s parents- an elegant chestnut and caramel apple tart, and a comforting pumpkin pie spiked with ginger. There’s also apricot clafoutis with honey and cardamom, raspberry swirl biscuits, chocolate pear tea cakes … among others.

Alanna was a pastry chef before becoming a blogger/cookbook writer, and I love her unfussy but uncompromising eye for detail. Like these cookies, for instance. Alanna uses chocolate in three ways- she has you melt together chocolate and butter with citrus zest (she calls for bergamot, I used orange), fold in chocolate chunks to the batter, and then top the cookie with more chocolate and flaked salt. The layers of texture make for a satisfying cookie. The cookie manages to be both soft and chewy. It’s nutty and deep, with a heady does of orange. They remind me of brownie cookies, except better, because the buckwheat brings out the toasted, rich notes of the chocolate. It’s a subtle addition, but one that enriches the whole thing.

I’m certainly going to make these for my gluten-free loved ones. I’ll also be making these regularly for my glutinous self. And I already know what Aaron’s mom is getting for Christmas- perhaps even with a box of cookies.

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Chocolate Buckwheat Cookies with Orange

Alanna suggests portioning the cookies by the heaping tablespoon. I went a bit more generous (about 2 tablespoons) and ended up with a slightly smaller amount of healthy sized cookies. I like them so much I’ll do the same next time.

adapted from Alternative Baker by Alanna Taylor-Tobin

Makes about 20 cookies

6 tablespoons (85 g) unsalted butter
12 ounces (345 g) bittersweet chocolate, chopped, plus extra for topping
1 tablespoon orange zest (1 medium)
1/2 cup (65 g) buckwheat flour
2 tablespoons (15 g) tapioca flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (130 g) cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Flaked salt for topping

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a heavy bottom pan over very low heat melt together the butter, 8 ounces of chocolate, and the orange zest. Stir often, making sure the bottom doesn’t scorch. When the chocolate and butter are warm and melted together remove from heat and set aside.

In a small bowl sift together the buckwheat flour, tapioca flour, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a medium bowl combine the eggs, sugar, and salt. Mix on high using a hand mixer (or do as Alanna suggests, and use the paddle attachment for a stand mixer) for 5 minutes, until the eggs are fluffy and light in texture. Reduce the speed to low, and add the vanilla extract and chocolate butter mixture. Once that’s well combined mix in the reserved flour. Turn off the mixer, and use a flexible rubber spatula to fold in the remaining 4 ounces of chopped chocolate.

The batter should resemble thick brownie batter at this point. If it doesn’t, pop it in the fridge for a bit. I had to let my batter sit in the fridge for 5 minutes before it was ready to scoop.

Using an ice cream scoop or two spoons, drop the batter onto the prepared cookie sheets. Make sure to leave about 2 inches between the cookies. Top the cookies with chopped chocolate and a pinch of flaked salt.

Bake the cookies for 8-12 minutes, rotating the trays halfway, until the edges are set and the tops are cracked. Allow the cookies to cool on the tray before eating. They will keep at room temperature for a few days. Alanna says to store them in an airtight container, but mine have been sitting quite happily in the open- all the better for snacking.

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