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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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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Sweet Potato Tea Cake


How do you deal with tragedy? I don’t mean the personal tragedies, I mean the macro, worldwide scale. There seem to be two ways to deal with tragedy, at least online. You can obsessively talk about it, bringing it into every conversation. Or you can ignore it. Both make sense to me- the former is to acknowledge it, and by acknowledging people’s suffering it feels like you are doing something. You are not helpless. The latter makes it feel like you are refusing to give the darkness power. You are not giving in. Both make sense. Neither seem to work.

This week has been full of sorrow  and anger and determination. There are many intelligent people who have written about how to respond to these events much better than I. I do know that banning Syrian refugees from entering certain states is a wrong and hateful reaction. I do know that changing my facebook profile picture does little except show solidarity, but that solidarity is better than nihilism. And I know that some joy has to be taken from everyday life. That tragedies, whether man-made or natural, will not stop, and to never step back is to risk becoming numb.

I bake when things are tough. There’s something about making things. Sorrow does not diminish, but it cedes some room for other emotions when I feel busy and useful. It was during one of these spats that I made this cake. This cake is wholesome. It’s the type you might make for an afternoon tea break, or eat for breakfast. It’s dense and slightly fudgy in texture, and just the right amount of sweet to feel like a treat. Aaron likened it to pumpkin pie, and it’s not an unfair comparison. It’s a nurturing cake, the kind you may want to eat when the world is spinning.

I’ll leave you with a poem, because if cake doesn’t help, poetry may. Stay safe. Stay strong.

Hum

by Ann Lauterbach

The days are beautiful
The days are beautiful.

I know what days are.
The other is weather.

I know what weather is.
The days are beautiful.

Things are incidental.
Someone is weeping.

I weep for the incidental.
The days are beautiful.

Where is tomorrow?
Everyone will weep.

Tomorrow was yesterday.
The days are beautiful.

Tomorrow was yesterday.
Today is weather.

The sound of the weather
Is everyone weeping.

Everyone is incidental.
Everyone weeps.

The tears of today
Will put out tomorrow.

The rain is ashes.
The days are beautiful.

The rain falls down.
The sound is falling.

The sky is a cloud.
The days are beautiful.

The sky is dust.
The weather is yesterday.

The weather is yesterday.
The sound is weeping.

What is this dust?
The weather is nothing.

The days are beautiful.
The towers are yesterday.

The towers are incidental.
What are these ashes?

Here is the hate
That does not travel.

Here is the robe
That smells of the night

Here are the words
Retired to their books

Here are the stones
Loosed from their settings

Here is the bridge
Over the water

Here is the place
Where the sun came up

Here is a season
Dry in the fireplace.

Here are the ashes.
The days are beautiful.

 

Sweet Potato Tea Cake

I roasted the sweet potatoes the day of, but you could easily roast some ahead of time and set some aside. Boyce’s original recipe calls for whole wheat flour instead of spelt, but I’m more likely to have spelt than wheat so I subbed spelt out. It also called for half a teaspoon of baking soda which I forgot (I know, I’m terrible). I quite like the end result, but if you would like a fluffier cake, you should add it in. Finally, these were originally muffins that I changed into a cake. If you would like to make muffins, I’d start checking the muffins around 25 minutes into baking.

Adapted from Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce

One medium sweet potato, about 12 ounces
1 cup spelt flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup greek yogurt
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/4 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 egg
6 dates, pitted and finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Prick the sweet potato with a fork a few times and roast until soft and sweet smelling, about an hour. Remove from oven and peel out of its skin.

Lower heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour a nine inch cake pan, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the two flours, spices, salt, and baking powder.

In a small bowl whisk together the greek yogurt and buttermilk.

In a large bowl, mix together the butter and the two sugars using a hand mixer until the mixture is fluffy and light brown in color, about three minutes. Scrape down the sides. Add the egg and half of the roasted sweet potato, and mix until well combined, about a minute. Scrape down the sides. On low speed, add the flour mixture until mostly combined. Add the buttermilk mixture, and then the sweet potato and dates, mixing until combined just combined. It’s okay if the sweet potato still has chunks.

Pour into the prepared pan and smooth over the top. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until it is golden brown and a tester comes out clean. Remove  from the pan and let cool on a serving rack.

 

 

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