And so February is upon us, with all its beauty and, dare I say, annoyance. Winter is careening by, but not without having the last word.
Delighting in the snow, resplendent and peaceful as it falls, blanketing the earth while we’re all snug in our homes, watching from the window and sipping a warm mug of something, ultimately gives way to the inevitable irritation of dealing with the dreary reality of its removal, effectively jarring us from that all-too-brief dream sequence. (Cue the record-scratch sound effect). My solution? Make dessert.
An age-old remedy for the winter blues, a little something sweet is a welcomed bright spot, albeit small, in the workweek as we toil away in our home offices, be they the bed, the couch, the kitchen table or the spare room. Dessert acts like a crane, lifting us, groaning all the while, out of the trench that is late winter.
This week, I made lemon bars, because, well, life … lemons … you get the picture. But mostly because winter is peak season for citrus, which is refreshing not only from a flavor perspective, but from a visual one as well. Bright, vivid colors are in short supply this time of year, so keeping some Cara-Cara oranges, Ruby Red grapefruit and grassy-green limes in bowls and on countertops around the kitchen is like a sensory pep-talk. Plus, I had a bagful of lemons I wanted to use up. So, with my new light-therapy lamp in position and aglow (on the highest setting), I dug out a recipe and channeled the warm tropics.
I also reflected on something I read recently from New York Times food writer, Sam Sifton, who said, “There’s a boredom to cooking in a pandemic, if you’re not careful. Seek inspiration so that you’re not taken hostage by it.” And that, my friends, was all the permission I needed to start baking.
Admittedly, “easy” is one of those tricky terms that means different things to different people, but, I assure you, short of juicing the lemons (which can be thoroughly therapeutic following a not-so-fun Zoom call), these bars couldn’t be less difficult. High-five if you own a juicer. I am not a born baker, which is to say, I don’t particularly enjoy the act of making cakes and pies, and what’s more, the 19-year-old is away at college, meaning our resident pastry chef is absent. So, if we want a homemade sweet ’round here (which, if I’m honest, is most days), we’re on our own. Hence, “easy” is all I can manage in this department.
Now, the real bonus of making these bars, aside from the obvious, is that the sublime finished product literally looks like sunshine (!), highlighting the cheery prospect of the coming spring, warmer temperatures and, if I may, a fully-vaccinated population. These lemon bars are the perfect balance of tart-sweet loveliness, giving way to a mood-boosting, slump-canceling, joy. Custardy and creamy, they cry out as much for a glass of sparkling wine as for an espresso or cup of cocoa to accompany them on a chilly night. Oh, and P.S., they play really well as a decadent breakfast pastry, too, though I would never!
The only downside to this recipe, courtesy of famed New York baker Amy Scherber’s book, “The Sweeter Side of Amy’s Breads,” is how quickly the fruits of your labor will disappear. I challenge that they’ll be sitting around the house for [no?] longer than a day or two. They last mere hours at our place, but your mileage may vary.
I hope you’ll give lemon bars a try once or twice this winter and spread some sunshine for the people you love. I read something the other day that said, “[As we move through this year and beyond], maybe we’ll start thinking about wellness in a more everyday way, as we look for easy (there’s that word again) habits to counter anxiety, stress and burnout.” I’m starting with dessert.
Make something yummy!
ZESTY Lemon Bars
Makes 20 bars
for the crust:
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter cut into 1-inch pieces, plus more for pan
1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cups confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1½ teaspoons coarse salt
for the topping:
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon freshly- squeezed lemon juice, plus 1 teaspoon of zest
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon of milk
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F with a rack in the center of the oven. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
2. To make crust: In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add butter and process until mixture is pale yellow and resembles a coarse meal, about 10 seconds. If you don’t have a food processor, whisk together flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a large bowl. Add butter and work into flour mixture using a pastry blender or your fingers.
3. Pour crust mixture into prepared baking dish, pressing down with your fingers to create a 1/4-inch-thick layer along the bottom and ½-inch up the sides, pressing firmly at the edges to seal. Transfer pan to freezer for 30 minutes. Transfer to oven and bake, rotating pan once during baking, until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
4 Meanwhile, make the topping. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, and flour. Stir in lemon juice, milk, and salt until well combined.
5. Remove baking pan from oven. Stir topping and pour into warm crust. Return pan to oven and continue baking until topping is just set, but not browned, about 20 minutes.
6. Transfer baking pan to wire rack to cool completely. Cut into 20 squares. Serve immediately or wrap each bar tightly with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until ready to serve.