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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Basil Lemon Italian Ice

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Italian ice. Wikipedia keeps telling me that it’s the same as a granita or sorbet, but it’s not. It’s finer than a granita and coarser than a sorbet. It’s a smooth mound of flavored ice crystals that are packed together as tightly as ice cream, with a bright tart taste and a velvety mouthfeel. It’s the thing to eat in the summer when wandering around outside.

Italian ice always makes me think of some strange combination of nostalgia and homesickness. My peak Italian ice consumption is directly liked with zoo visits. Like many other managers of small humans, my parents had a zoo membership for many years to make visiting the zoo a frequent and affordable event. We would always pack our own lunches (see: affordable) but whenever it was hot we would buy frozen treats for snacks. The kids would choose some variety of cartoon shaped popsicles, my dad would get a decadent something with chocolate and nuts, and my mom always chose a stately and demure lemon Italian ice.

What a treat. It was the most refreshing thing I could imagine on a hot day. It was smooth and tart, with just enough sweetness to make the lemon even more pronounced. I started off ordering a strawberry Italian ice once I was old enough to appreciate its charms. Soon enough that strawberry had morphed into a lemon Italian ice. My mom and I would wander around the zoo, both of us scraping at our Italian ices with tiny plastic spoons as we watched peacocks prance about trying to impress peahens. That Italian ice was not as sweet as a Sailor Moon Crescent Moon Wand Popsicle with bubblegum, but it had its own charms.

Like many childhood treats it’s difficult to find as an adult. Italian ice, which was so plentiful in Chicago summers, is uncommon in Minneapolis. The easiest and most efficient solution is to make my own. But when making my own Italian ice, I wanted to add something a bit different. Basil is abundant and cheap from where I stand and so I threw in a large bunch of basil with the lemon juice, lemon, and simple syrup. I loved the green color and the anise-y, herbaceous taste that resulted.

If you’re not feeling basil, this could be an easy template to swap in the classic strawberries. Or you could make an offbeat variation yourself. Tarragon and cherry, perhaps? Lime? Piña colada? There’s still summer enough left for all your Italian ice dreams.

Basil Lemon Italian Ice

adapted from The Chicago Tribune

Makes about 10 scoops

This Italian ice is on the tart side. If you’d like a sweeter Italian ice, you should make and use more simple syrup. Simple syrup is sugar that’s been  dissolved into water. It’s used in many cocktails, a handful of desserts, and some upscale coffee bars to add sweetness to cold presses. It’s easy and cheap to make, and scales up or down well. If you like to mix cocktails or add sugar to iced coffee it may be something you’d like to keep on hand. Just be aware that the more sugar you add, the longer the Italian ice will take to freeze.

3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 large or 2 small lemons, quartered and with seeds cut out
1/2 cup basil
4 cups (about 24) ice cubes

First, make the simple syrup. In a small pot combine the sugar and the water. Bring to a simmer, and stir while the sugar dissolves. Once the sugar has all melted turn off the heat. Let the simple syrup cool down to room temperature.

In a blender combine 1 cup of simple syrup (you will have a bit left over), the lemon juice, the whole lemon, and the basil. Blend on high until everything is well mixed. Taste, and add more sugar if necessary. What you taste now will be more muted once it’s cold, so if it’s perfectly sweet now you’ll want to add a bit more simple syrup.

Chill, either in the refrigerator or freezer until cold.

Return to the blender and add the ice cubes. Blend until the ice cubes are broken down smoothly and evenly. While doing this I needed to carefully increase the speed at even increments, but you know your blender best and how it works. Transfer to a shallow pan, and pop into the freezer.

Freeze, stirring every hour or so until firm but scoop-able. In my pan in my freezer this took about 3 hours- it will likely vary according to the pan you use and how cold your freezer is. It will be best the first day it’s made. Scoop into small bowls, and eat with abandon.

 

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Eggnog French Toast


There was a ritual around the Christmas tree. We would drive the hour a Saturday morning shortly after Thanksgiving to the same tree farm every year. As we drove the towns became smaller and further from each other. There was more farms and more tackle shops and far fewer strip malls. The bars looked friendlier than the adult-only ones my parents visited and advertised Coors on tap.

Once we got to the farm a worker in a bright orange vest would greet us, and offer a saw to borrow. Dad always brought his own, so instead the worker would tell us where we could and could not cut. Then we would drive our minivan, since we always seemed to have a minivan no matter if the memory is from age 5 or age 15, deep into the trees.

There was a wonderful variety of trees available. There were three foot trees for the couple just starting out. There were twenty foot trees for the family who had everything. Evergreens, as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of the historical novels I loved to read, about girls a hundred years ago walking in winter forests.

Dad was the one who chopped the tree but Mom was the one who decided. She had specific criteria. She didn’t want it to be too tall, because she didn’t want to pay for a height we’d have to cut off at home. Round needles, because they shed less than flat needles. It had to be full, although she also had a deep love for the Charlie Brown trees. And it had to have a true point, so we could top it with the angel. It took forever.

And then after we found one, we had to pose for a Christmas picture.

When Dad finally cut the tree he would remove one glove, and hold the tree in his ungloved hand while furiously sawing with the other. Mom’s job was to tilt the tree in the ever-changing direction Dad indicated. Our job as kids was to stay out of the way. We were not very good at this job.

After we had loaded the tree onto our car, and then had it bailed and paid for and trussed on top, we stopped for lunch at The Polka Dot Diner, which was filled with 1950s kitsch. The women’s bathroom was filled with pictures of Elvis smoldering at the inhabitants. It made me feel uncomfortable. I tried to avoid using the bathroom when I could. But I still loved it there, with the grilled cheese and hot chocolate I always ordered that tasted so much better than at home.

Back at home Dad always had to cut down the tree, and Mom followed the progression of the tree into the house with the vacuum cleaner. Then The Music of a Victorian Christmas CD was put on, and Mom pulled out the ornaments from storage, and I helped Dad tighten the Christmas tree into the base. The handmade ornaments always went up first- Abby’s angel made from a spoon, my triangular 1st grade picture frame, Mitch’s handprint Rudolph. Then the gift ornaments, then the baubles, then the 1970s Christmas light. The angel was always last. By now the music had switched to Nat King Cole and Dad was building a fire. We had popcorn and hot chocolate as we put up the nativity and the nutcrackers and stockings.

There were other Christmas rituals. Moving the wise men closer to the manger every day and lighting Advent candles. Chinese food and a Christmas Story on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight Mass. Cinnamon rolls, always from Cinnabon, for breakfast on Christmas morning while Mom and Dad took their coffee with Bailey’s. We’d open gifts in the morning and linger in our pajamas until it came time to shower and visit family.

The sad and beautiful thing about rituals is that they evolve. My parents no longer go out and hunt for a tree every year, having switched to plastic three years ago. There’s no more scent of pine perfuming the house and no more quite-possibly-toxic 1970s Christmas lights. The Cinnabon closest to my parents closed and they serve strata for breakfast instead. And the Polka Dot Diner closed, replaced with a space themed restaurant serving the exact same menu.

But when I go back to my parents I know there will still be fires, and Nat King Cole, and ornaments made from our elementary school pictures. I’ll likely make these cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast and my parents and Aaron will drink their coffee with Bailey’s.

But for the next week we’re making our own traditions. And this year that involves Hipster Holidays on Pandora, collecting ornaments for our non-existent tree, and eggnog french toast.

Eggnog french toast is the perfect breakfast when you want something celebratory but not too decadent or sweet. It feels special- thick slices of bread are soaked in eggnog and eggs, then fried so they’re crispy on the outside and custardy on the inside. I added vanilla to my batter, but if you want to move into the truly decadent category you could add whisky, brandy, or rum. It’s sweet, but not tooth-aching. It suggest holidays and celebration, but doesn’t demand it. It would be perfect for a lazy, weekend brunch, or a breakfast with friends. And it’s simple, although you’d ever know it- perfect for slowing down during a whirlwind Christmas season.

Eggnog French Toast

inspired by Burg’s French Toast from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenburg

In order to get the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, make sure to use a loaf of bread that’s got a bit of crust, but isn’t too dense. I used a batard that I got from my local grocery store, but you could even use one of those thick breads labeled as “Italian bread” that hangs out near the produce department. Additionally, make sure you fry the bread in enough oil. If there’s too little oil, you won’t get the nice sear on your bread.

12 slices (total weighing about a pound) of thick cut white bread
1 1/2 cups eggnog
1/2 cup milk
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

enough canola oil to cover the pan

In a shallow pan, such as a cake pan, whisk together the eggnog, milk, eggs, and vanilla until well combined. Place the bread slices in the egg mixture. The longer the bread soaks, the more custard-y the texture and eggnog-y the taste will be. I recommend soaking for 5-10 minutes and turning the bread once.

Place a large pan over medium heat and cover the bottom with canola oil.

Add the bread to the pan and let sit until golden brown, about three minutes. Turn the bread and let the other side cook, another two minutes or so. Repeat with remaining bread.

Serve with butter and maple syrup.

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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.

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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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