Thursday, June 3, 2010

Love and Lemon Squares

There is a mockingbird perched in the peach tree, panting. No one believes me when I tell them birds pant when they're hot, but it's true.

Welcome summer. I want lemon squares.

Not that I know anything about lemon squares. I've never made lemon squares before, my mother never made lemon squares, and I have no childhood memories of tire swings (ours was made out of a plank), swimming pools (it was a creek), or nibbling tart lemony confections on a screened-in porch at twilight (okay, that I totally made up). At some point in my life I must have eaten them -- except I can't say when -- and at some point in my life I knew I would someday want to make them because I have no less than five different recipes clipped from magazines and saved in my baking binder.

Nevertheless, it's hot and I feel the lemon square call of shortbread and tart citrus and a fine dusting of powdered sugar.

I confessed all this to MP one afternoon. As there are only two of us in the house, I can't really see any point in whipping up a batch of something only to find out upon completion that MP has always hated what I just whipped up. Seeing as I had five different recipes, each claiming to be the One True lemon-square, I asked MP if he liked lemon squares and if he had any opinions about them.

Confronted with the possibility of lemon squares, MP leapt into action. He studied the recipes with much frowning and tongue clicking. On the subject of zest-usage he could see both pros and cons; on the matter of powdered sugar he was absolute -- there can be no lemon square without powdered sugar. Not only did MP have an opinion about lemon squares, but he provided me with the exact mathematical ratio of lemon curd to shortbread that would optimize for lemon square perfection.

Suddenly this became much more intimidating. I wasn’t sure I could whip up what is essentially a two part dessert (shortbread plus lemon custard) with such precision.

“Don’t worry if they don’t come out perfect,” replied MP, “I’ll eat the evidence.”

Love takes many forms.

I went with Joanne Chang’s lemon bar recipe from a 2002 issue of Fine Cooking. Because her ingredients were also listed by weight, it made the conversion to gluten-free easier for me. I did 4 oz of my white rice/tapioca starch/potato starch blend and 2 oz of brown rice flour, which gave me a bit over a cup of flours. With an added ¼ teaspoon of xanthan gum, I had my GF shortbread base.

A word on curd: once again, here’s a recipe that uses eggs in ways the casual baker may not have tried before. Try it anyway -- yes, making your own curd is some trouble, but it is worth it.

And strain your curd! I have no idea what this cruft is. I didn't scramble my eggs when tempering them, I swear! I'm gonna claim that the cream curdled because of the acidity of the lemon juice.

A strained curd is a smooth curd. This is what is meant by "coating the spoon."

Ms. Chang and MP disagree on both the ratio of curd to shortbread and the powdered sugar issue. In her experience customers love the thicker layer of lemon curd, and she doesn’t feel that the bars really need the layer of powdered sugar. MP is a shortbread hound and likes many of his baked goods to be topped with a sugar crust. I would say that these are philosophical differences in the lemon square vision, and each baker must follow their heart.

I did not pour all of the lemon curd over the shortbread, but only enough so that shortbread and curd existed in MPs 1:1 ratio. Having leftover lemon curd did not bother me at all, because I also had leftover macarons in the freezer. Believe me, the curd found a home. In addition, I did feel that the lemon squares required a faint dusting of powdered sugar –- but only upon serving (left on the bars it melts right into the curd), passing the sugar so that each could arrive at his own level of sweet perfection. (Note: one of those hinged tea-balls makes a great powdered sugar shaker.) They need to be stored in the refrigerator; the shortbread is pretty buttery and it helps the cut bars keep their shape.

For someone who had no previous lemon square experience, I was pretty pleased with myself. And true to his word, MP ate the evidence.

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