Wednesday, December 21, 2005

under the gun

So today's the last (half)day of school before break, and if I'm going to bake something for the teachers, now is the time to do it.

This year, I'm scaling back because of my own scheduling ineptitude, the kids' illnesses, and the fact that the lemon tree is about to fall over it is so laden with fruit. So, without further ado:

Champion Lemon Squares
(Use half the amounts for an 8x8 baking pan; for the full recipe use a 9x13 pan)

1 C (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 C confectioners’ sugar
1 T grated lemon zest
2 C flour
1/8 tsp salt

4 eggs
2 C sugar
4 T flour
1/3 - 1/2 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 T grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the baking pan with foil or parchment to make getting the squares out easier.

To make the crust, it’s easiest to use a food processor: put everything in the processor with S-blade in place, and pulse to break up the butter a bit, then run it until the dough forms a ball and runs around the inside of the bowl a few times. By hand, beat the butter and sugar together until blended, then add the remaining ingredients and beat until everything is incorporated and you have a nice dough. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan – watch the corners, and be careful of thin spots -- and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool while you make the filling.

For the filling: beat all the ingredients together, then pour over the cooked crust. Return to the oven and bake 20 to 25 minutes more, until the top is dry and just barely browned around the edges. You don’t want to overbake this. It’s OK if the center of the custard is not quite set. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack, then cut into squares to serve. Sift with confectioner’s sugar before serving if you want.

This recipe is based on the version in Marion Cunningham's The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, one of my most-used cookbooks over the last twenty years. I'm not kidding, it's my baking bible. But Marion is a little wimpy with the lemon, I think -- or maybe I just like really lemon-y lemon squares. Most lemon squares have the suggestion of lemon in them, but not much true lemon flavor. These bars have enough lemon in them but not so much you're puckering. There is such a thing as too much! Finding the perfect balance with lemons can be tricky, because some lemons are more tart than others, but I think these measurements work very well.

Now, off to bake!

Later: I did manage to get everything baked, sufficiently cooled to cut, and packed just in time to pick up DS1 -- DD is home with day 2 of strep, feeling much better on her antibiotic. *whew*

While I was baking, I thought about what is it about these that makes them so good. It's not just the extra lemon juice and zest, I realized. I always use King Arthur flour, because it's unbleached and not bromated. Basically that means you're not getting chemicals with your wheat, but what it amounts to in practice is that it's a drier flour than your typical all purpose flour. That's why I always have to use more water in my pie crust, I only recently figured out! Silly me. But it also contributes to the wonderful texture of the shortbread crust of these lemon bars.

Another important detail in baking is to always, always use unsalted butter. You can't measure how much salt is in salted butter, so while you can adjust the amount called for in the recipe down if all you have is salted butter, it's something of a guess. Another thing to keep in mind is that the salt in the butter is there as a preservative, so salted butter will sit on the shelf longer than unsalted. Sweet (unsalted) butter is likely to be of higher quality as well, because there is no salt to mask the taste of the butter itself.

Aside from the ingredients, technique is important as well. This is a low-fuss recipe, but there is one step to which you must pay strict attention: patting out the crust into the pan. It is well worth your time and effort to make sure that the dough is evenly spread out in the pan. There is a tendency to thin corners and sides, and a taller middle. This spells disaster, for some of the crust will be too thin and crisp, and some will be too thick and thus pasty in the middle. And, with an uneven crust, the custard topping will be uneven, too, since the top of it will self-level. The skinny parts of the crust will have too much custard, the thick parts, too little. Lemon squares are all about the balance.

Finally, watch your oven, and if the racks are uneven or if it seems to have hot spots, you might want to rotate the pans mid-way in the cooking process to try and even things out a bit. If you make a double batch (two pan's worth), you should swap the pan's positions as well as rotate them back-to-front mid-way during the baking. Two pans in the oven will change the flow of heat enough that cooking may be uneven if you don't; swapping the pans around helps prevent burning on one side while the other is still underdone.

If you use heavy duty foil to line the pan, you can lift the squares right out of the pan onto your cooling rack. (I never use anything put heavy duty foil anymore; regular foil seems like tissue paper by comparison.) For the final touch, I use a tea strainer to sprinkle confectioner's sugar over the bars. The result is a nice, even layer, and you can control where the sugar goes much more easily than if you use a large sifter.

These can come together very quickly, but you can't be slapdash about it. Take the time, you won't be disappointed.

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