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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Olive Oil Banana Bread with Lemon Glaze

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Banana bread will make a woman do all sorts of dangerous nonsense. It will make her leave bananas out on the countertop until they’re soft and dark and starting to attract fruit flies, then will claim precious freezer storage for the dark and soft bananas. It will make her take home fifteen bunches of bananas that are ripening rapidly for hope of that sweet, sweet taste. Banana bread will seduce with promises of an easy cake, a sweet treat, and leave her trembling and angry when her oven will not turn on. In a fit of desperation this woman may to bake banana bread in her toaster oven, thus jeopardizing her own happy relationship. Banana bread, for all its wholesome image, is a minx.

For a few years now I thought I’d have mastered banana bread. I keep a few bananas in the freezer, already peeled and portioned in delis that I’ve taken from work. I keep no more than a few at a time. I have the recipe that I love at my fingertips, a recipe that utilizes nutritious ingredients that I always keep on hand. We’ve come to an understanding, banana bread and I. I make it during baking season as often as is reasonable and it leaves my relationship alone. And then I decide to share this recipe with you. I woke up an hour earlier before brunch to try to photograph it. I need two more sessions, a set of recently purchased antique napkins, and moving all of the living room furniture out of the room to take a palatable photograph. I denied Aaron banana bread for two days. Banana bread brings out something wild in me.

For all my complaints, this banana bread is worth it. With the combination of olive oil, yogurt, bananas, and eggs it’s intensely moist, even after a long spell in the oven. The dark brown sugar is sophisticated, and the whole wheat flour brings out a beautiful nuttiness. I know there are plenty of people who are hesitant about using whole wheat flour in sweet baking. Yes, it often changes the texture and can be dry. But here you want the whole wheat flour. It has the structure you want to stand up to all those lusciously moist ingredients. And they in turn soften the whole wheat, and you’re left with something lovely. The chocolate is only the clincher.

It’s a supremely elegant banana bread. It’s the sort of banana bread I’d like to offer to guests who come for tea. I have served it as a dessert for informal friends dinners. It’s turns into muffins very nicely, and I bet it could easily make a beautiful layered cake. As long as you treat it well, this banana bread will reward you.

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Olive Oil Banana Bread with Lemon Glaze

adapted from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark via 101 Cookbooks

Makes 1 loaf

I used a full cup of chocolate chips for this banana bread, because that meant no chopping and more chocolate. If you’d like a more refined banana bread, chopped chocolate would give delightful flecks throughout the whole thing.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about three large)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon lemon zest (about half of one large lemon)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Glaze
6 tablespoons (1/4 cup +2 tablespoons) brown sugar
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350. Butter a loaf pan and set aside.

In a large bowl whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add in the chocolate and whisk again. Set aside.

In another bowl whisk together the bananas, eggs, oil, yogurt, lemon zest, and vanilla until smooth. Pour into the flour mixture. Use a rubber spatula to fold the wet into the dry until all the flour is absorbed. Scrape into the prepared loaf pan.

Bake the banana bread for 50 minutes, until the banana bread is fragrant and golden. A toothpick inserted into the banana bread should come out clean. Allow it to cool completely.

Whisk together the sugars and lemon juice until completely smooth for the glaze. Pour over the cooled banana bread. Serve in thick slices.

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Chocolate Torte with Whipped Cream and Pistachios

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Aaron,

I’m not sure how I ever got so lucky to be your wife. There are many ways that you may respond- you usually deflect the compliment, and insist that you’re the lucky one. Or you may refer to me as your partner because you think the word wife sounds subservient and that’s nothing like our marriage. This aside, I am still not sure how I ever got so lucky.

Do you remember when we were got engaged? I was 23 and you were 22 and we had no idea where we were going in life. Post-college jobs, the sort that we had spent years studying and paying for, were elusive. Independence was hard to find. And in all of that you took me for a walk one frigid March afternoon and asked me to marry you. I swore and screamed and didn’t let you finish the question. We spent a few days slowly telling our closest friends and families, letting it be our happy secret before putting it out for everyone to know.

In the year and a half before we got married we got a lot of questions from people. Friends and strangers both would ask us why. Why we were getting married so young. There was genuine curiosity, but there was also hostility. Do you remember how angry I would get? Or when your awful manager at that terrible hotel bar asked why you  wanted to get married instead of sleeping around? The form of the answer changed but the core was the same. We loved each other. We wanted to make that love the cornerstone of our lives rather than a crowning achievement. It’s as good an answer as any. But it’s not the whole answer.

I think people need others, whether that’s as friends or lovers or partners or some amalgam of all three. I am better with you. You are the most kind person I’ve ever known, and you bring that out in me. With you I’m softer, less prickly. I’m slower to judge and to take offense. Your steadiness is grounding. You challenge my assumptions by making me explain them.

When my family was questioning my decision to not take your name you were my greatest advocate. When I thought that I might want to change jobs (and earn less money) you mastermind a cross-state move. If I woke up tomorrow with the decision to go to grad school, write a book, or enter politics you would not only support the decision, but help figure out how we could make it work. And you would do it graciously, without any bitterness or impatience.

Our friends who didn’t know us early in our relationship are always shocked that we used to fight. A lot. We spent a long time having the hard conversations and deciding kind of relationships we wanted. It wasn’t easy. I’ve seen plenty of friends break up over these fights, these conversations. When people ask how we did it I like to paraphrase C.S. Lewis and say that love is not a feeling but a decision. It’s not romantic but is often true.

But you know as well as I do that love is both. It’s you making me origami paper roses for our first Valentine’s Day together and not expecting anything in return. It’s smuggling a bottle of wine in our picnic tote because it’s a Thursday and we want to celebrate it being Thursday.  It’s making me a cocktail after a hard night of work and”I love you” being the first words you say every morning. And these sort of flowery posts are usually reserved for Valentine’s Days, or birthdays, or anniversaries. But maintaining love means building it every day.

Recently we went out to ie for a date night. We have a bad habit of going out to eat and spending way more than anticipated, but if that’s our biggest vice I’m not terribly worried. We reconnect over these nights. They’ve always been our steadying point. You had been gone for work for a week and we had missed each other. We drank glasses of wine and made friends with our server. The food was incredible- tender octopus flecked with shredded pepperoni, braised cannellini beans, perfectly seared scallops, squid ink and uni pasta with clams. And then came dessert- a fudge-y chocolate torte with a shattering crust, flecked with salt and drizzled with olive oil. The tart was strewn with pistachios and topped with whipped cream, and as full as we were we kept trying to finish it. We brought it home, and the next day I ate it all. And when you found out, as disappointed as you were, you forgave me instantly. As you always do.

I love you, darling. This one is for you.

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Chocolate Torte with Whipped Cream and Pistachios

adapted from Fran Bigelow via Saveur

Tightly wrapped, this torte will keep but will get softer the longer it sits. I imagine that it will freeze well, but have not tried it myself.

Makes one 9 inch torte

1 pound semi-sweet chocolate chips (or semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped)
1 cup heavy cream
6 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dry curaçao or other orange liquor
1 teaspoon salt

To serve

Whipped cream
Crushed pistachios
Flaked Salt
Olive Oil

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 9 inch cake pan. Cut a round of parchement paper the same size as the bottom of the pan, lay that at the bottom of the pan, and butter that as well. Place a large pot of water on the stove and set it to simmer.

Place the chocolate into a heatproof bowl and set into the pot so it sits above the water but does not touch it. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally. Once all the chocolate is melted set aside. Let the water continue to simmer.

Meanwhile, place the heavy cream into a medium bowl. Use an electric mixer with a whisk attachment to whip the cream. Once it is fluffy and stable set aside.

In a large heatproof bowl combine the eggs, sugar, orange curaçao and salt. Whisk the whole mess together. Set over the simmering water and whisk continuously until the egg mixture is warm. Remove from the heat.

Using the whisk attachment beat the warm egg mixture over medium for 5 minutes. The eggs should be fluffy, frothy, light yellow, and at least doubled in volume by the time 5 minutes have passed. Slowly beat in the melted chocolate until all combined.

Using a rubber spatula, add the whipped cream to the chocolate-egg mixture and fold in the whipped cream. Be careful to fold until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.

Place the cake pan in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes. It will have risen, with cracks on the surface, and will smell of rich chocolate. A toothpick inserted into the cracks will come out clean, and the center should be just set.

Allow to cool completely before removing from the pan. This torte is best served in small pieces with lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream, pistachios, flaked salt, and a drizzle of olive oil.

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