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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Mujadara

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I first made mujadara in college. I spent senior year living with friends in a run down house half a mile from campus. When my dad came to help me move into the house he just looked at me and shook his head. It was dirty, but more than that it was rickety. It felt vaguely illegal to live there, even with paying rent and electricity. The landlord had no interest in maintaining something that he felt that college students would just ruin. Our roof was damaged by hail the year before. When my friend Hannah signed the lease he promised, on his word, that he would fix it. Conveniently written into the lease was that he was under no obligation make any repairs that were not written into the lease. It was a disappointingly adult lesson in the perils of promises.

But I loved that house. I loved the small yard where we strung a laundry line between two trees and our neighbors who allowed us to use their compost pile. I loved the front porch where we’d sit on summer nights and eat dinner, drinking wine out of mason jars. I loved my room, the first and only space I’ve ever had to myself with its mint green walls, sloping ceilings, and countertop where I kept my very own electric kettle. I didn’t love the creepy cellar underneath the house, but I loved the night when we invited all our friends over, got drunk, and painted the walls of the cellar.

We had one small kitchen between six girls. There were always fights about dishes and who used up the milk and didn’t replace it. But it was also a place where we’d study and catch up and share meals. Meals like mujarada were always on the stove- easy and cheap and delicious, and ideal to prepared while studying.

Mujadara. It’s a musical name for such a simple dish. Mujadara is made up essentially of four ingredients- olive oil, onions, lentils, and rice. It’s cheap and easy and mad delicious. I first heard of mujadara during that magical year of college from Orangette by Molly Wizenburg, whose elegant and clever writing paved the way for the abundance of food blogs we have today.

When I was in college I made mujadara much the way Molly describes. Now that I’m an adult and share my space with one person, not five and have a slightly larger grocery budget I add spices to the mix. Cumin, cardamamom, and cinnamon all accentuate the rich sweetness of caramelized onions. Bay leaves layer the earthy taste of lentils. Kept the same are the deeply caramelized onions, soft lentils, and tender rice. It’s comfort food in a deep way- you keep watch over a pot on the stove and just let it work its magic. I still use the same two and a half quart dutch oven and the same burnt wooden spoon. Across the years mujadara still is a celebration of things good and simple.

Mujadara

The base of this dish is the deeply caramelized onions. Don’t be afraid here- just keep an eye on the onions and stir occasionally. The color is where all the flavor lies. Ideally you’ll take these just to the teetering edge of burnt.

adapted from Orangette

serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 cup green lentils, picked through for rocks
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup long grain brown rice
salt

In a large, heavy bottomed pot with a lid warm the olive oil over medium low. Add the onions and stir to coat. Cook, stirring as often as necessary, until the onions are deeply caramelized. If they start to brown on the bottom of the pot make sure to scrape the brown bits up- that’s where all the flavor is. Depending on a whole gauntlet of features from your onions to your pot to your medium low heat, this could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.

While the onions are cooking add the lentils and the bay leaves to a pot and cover generously with water. Bring the lentils to a boil, then cook for twenty minutes. They should be tender by this point. Drain, remove the bay leaves, and set aside.

Once the onions are dark amber and soft stir in the cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Add the lentils and rice and a half teaspoon of rice. Stir well, then add in 2 cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with the lid and reduce the heat to a simmer.

At twenty minutes, check the mujadara- you’re looking for the water to be absorbed without the pot being dry and the rice to be tender. If it isn’t there yet, return the cover and and continue cooking. If the water is absorbed and the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and continue cooking and checking periodically.

Once the rice is tender and the water absorbed, taste your mujadara and add salt as necessary. Serve warm.

 

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Kale Stuffed Double Baked Potatoes


Growing up in the Midwest, celebrations meant going out to the steakhouse. In my family, that meant going to one in particular. Cousins in town? 50th anniversary? Funeral luncheon? It was always Syl’s. Syl’s was my grandparent’s steakhouse of choice, a restaurant founded in the 40s and that, save the clothing choices of some patrons, could have passed for being in the 40s still. It was at Syl’s where I would order the fillet mignon with mushrooms, unaware of its extravagance and without my parents correcting me. It was at Syl’s when Abby daringly tried frog’s legs and declared after careful chewing that they tasted just like chicken. It was at Syl’s where my Grandpa  and Uncles would order rounds of Manhattans, and where as a legal adult I disappointed them all by ordering an Old Fashioned.

It was a magical place, old fashioned and jovial. It left me with a serious appreciation for steak, the only meat that I craved during two separate bouts of vegetarianism. It was my template for what an grown-up restaurant was until I was well into college. And it fed me on a steady diet of potatoes.

Syl’s, like any good steakhouse, was serious about their potatoes. They came as a side for any steak in a list of magical variety. Whipped! Garlic mashed! Baked! And the king of it all, double baked potatoes. Even if I hadn’t gained a taste for steak, I would have still ordered it to get that side of potatoes.The potatoes were the main event. The steak was only a very tasty accompaniment.

I was evangelical about my potatoes. And double baked have long been one of my favorites. My aunt would bring them for Christmas, filled with cheddar and sprinkled with bright red paprika. I would gobble up so many my mom would shoot me a look across the room. My parents would buy them frozen from the bulk store and I would eat them for many dinners, mostly satisfied with their buttery flavor and smooth filling contrasted with tough skins. They were on the menu at Syl’s, beautifully piped. And double baked potatoes were on the menu of the first meal I tried to make my family. (Along with potato skins and gnocchi. Like I said, I have a thing for potatoes.)

Like so many things from my childhood- Applebee’s spinach artichoke dip, cinnamon toast crunch for breakfast, Dannon peach yogurt- double baked potatoes haven’t had a place in my life for a long time. The older I get, the more the double baked potato- white potatoes drowning in dairy- seems resigned to the list of food I can’t feel good about eating anymore. But when I was making a list of things I wanted to make double baked potatoes kept popping up. And I realized that I don’t have to slavishly recreate my nostalgic double baked potatoes. I can smarten up my childhood love for me to enjoy now.

These double baked potatoes are a stunner. They’re stuffed with kale and shallots and bound together with a tart helping of Greek yogurt with a little bit of milk for moisture. The goat cheese is for a grown up palate, and the dusting of smoked paprika is a twist of smart nostalgia. They are satisfying and hearty. If you eat meat, they’d be stunning with steak and if you don’t, they make a beautiful meal on their own. They are not the recreation of my childhood love, but rather the heir to its legacy. They’re what I love about where I was, and what I crave where I am.

 

Kale Stuffed Double Baked Potatoes

Serves 4

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large bunch of Dino kale, centers removed, thinly sliced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
Smoked paprika, to sprinkle

Preheat the oven to 400. Prick each potato in several places with a fork. Place the potatoes in the preheated oven and roast, for about an hour, until the potatoes are cooked through and give a bit when squeezed. Remove from the oven and set aside until you can comfortably touch them, about ten to fifteen minutes.

In a skillet warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the kale, shallots, and a sprinkle of salt and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the kale has cooked down and the shallots have softened. Sprinkle the two tablespoons of vinegar over the kale and continue to sauté for about another minute. The kale should be tender.  Remove from pan and set aside.

Slice the potatoes in half. Using a large spoon, scoop out the insides of the potato and place in a large bowl. Be careful to leave a ring of potato around the edges- you’ll need a bit for structure. Use a potato masher or an electric mixer to smooth the potatoes.

Combine the potatoes with the kale-shallot combination, the yogurt, the milk, and the nutmeg. Mix well add the goat cheese and mix again. Taste the poatao filling, and add salt as necessary.

Evenly divide the filling between the empty potato skins. Sprinkle with the smoked paprika. Place on a tray, and bake until the edges are crispy, about 30 minutes.

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