Why I Deliberately Effed Up a Perfectly Decent Lemon Square Recipe

You’re looking at lemon squares. OK, circles. Very very ugly lemon circles, founded on delectable golden shortbread, crowned with mysterious disks of meringue. They taste amazing, but they are the result of a series of fuckups. I committed them on purpose, because it’s the only way I know how to learn.

Process: I read a recipe, look at its picture. Usually it’s either boring or hard–very rarely square with my abilities. The voices in my head start up in a hurry. In the case of Southern Living’s lemon squares, they said: What if you made it with Meyer lemons? What if you made it in that brand new shallow cupcake pan? What the hell is a pastry blender, and why is its only substitute a fork?

For those of you who have never made lemon squares, they’re basically a shortbread bottom layer browned in the oven, then covered with a lemon custard which is then baked. Cool the whole thing down, and carve the squares from a single giant rectangle. Dust with powdered sugar, then immediately call your dentist. I can’t think of anything with a more dentally unfriendly combination of sugar and gooeyness.

If I had made them this way, I wouldn’t have had any trouble. But I wouldn’t have learned jack shit. I’m not saying I’m coming out of this the Einstein of lemon squares, but I know five things I didn’t know before, thanks to my botched job.

Though I learned the hard way that a “pastry blender” was not simply “any blender currently in the act of blending pastries,” I managed to press my butter chunks into flour and powdered sugar using a combination of potato mashers, wire whisks and bare hands. Hey, it worked.

After I pressed the shortbread mixture to the bottom of each tiny cup in my baking pan, I had a lot left over, so I grabbed a Pyrex pie pan and layered it too. I baked each at 350ºF for 20-30 min.

I don’t know whether I would have gone with a metal or Pyrex 13×9 pan but it never would have occurred to me to think about the difference. But a-ha! When I backed my way into doing both metal and Pyrex, I found out the difference is huge. I got more or less the same degree of top browning on both the metal pan and the Pyrex, I later noticed that the Pyrex hadn’t browned at all on the bottom. It was still tasty, but it lacked the richness and crunch–it still tasted like butter, flour and sugar mixed together with a fork. The cups within the metal pan tasted as good as I can imagine shortbread to taste. (That sounds dramatic, but honestly, I don’t have a particularly wild imagination when it comes to shortbread.)

My real trouble started with the custard fillings. I have a notoriously love-hate relationship with custard. I’ve made some desirable crème brûlée in my day, and I once had to apologize in advance for the awesomeness of some Boston cream I made for a DIY doughnut initiative. Still, you may recall I recently made panna cotta (secret confession: I actually made it twice) and failed quite clumsily. The lemon custard is little more than a lemon-and-sugar quiche filling, but I messed it up.

One thing I did was overbeat the egg. The recipe calls for whipping, but really just to combine all the ingredients evenly, not to change the egg’s physical properties. But there I was, with my mother-in-law’s stand mixer, flipping it on and off as I combined ingredients. I noticed things getting a little frothy in there, but I chose to ignore it. At my peril. The meringue crust that formed atop my cups and the Pyrex-contained lemon-square pie may have been enticing and a novel twist, but it remains undesired, not least of all because it was suddenly impossible to remove the desserts from their cooking vessels without cracking or crumbling the tops.

The primary lesson here is that it’s easy to accidentally start to make a meringue, so don’t beat too much unless instructed to.

In hindsight, when comparing this to other eggy dishes similarly prepared in the oven, I realized a secondary lesson too: When in doubt, cover with foil. You’re not really going for a crust. Hell, the fact that you’re supposed to dust with powdered sugar means to me that you want to avoid a crust at all cost. Foil might not have helped me out of my meringue bind, but it wouldn’t have hurt either.

Oddly enough, though I fucked up much of the recipe, I did happen upon a good way to make individual lemon cups. I might go with a slightly taller cupcake pan, and I might even try cupcake liners for easy ejection, though truth is, a little butter or other grease around the rims, and they should pop out.

As close as I might have come to the mark, hitting it would have been a tragedy. Fuckups are what help me understand stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve botched a hurried sauce to pour over broccoli or chicken. Yet little by little, with every error, the mysteries of reduction, thickening and emulsion are revealing themselves to me.

I’d never have learned about working with whole wheat flour if I hadn’t once substituted bread flour for whole wheat in a 1:1 swap, producing a right nutty brick of a loaf for my pains.

I wouldn’t have understood why gelatin is a key component to panna cotta, regardless of what the Silver Spoon cookbook says. I would not have gotten the message that re-boiling stock meat once a first stock has been made isn’t as smart as it sounds. (OK, it sounds dumb, but I know why now!) I wouldn’t know why it’s vital to keep those short ribs braising in the oven for at least four hours, or how meat changes over a day even at super low heat. Sure that particular overnight-at-165ºF operation produced a mealy, fall-apart piece of pretty much inedible chicken, the lesson of it was invaluable.

A real chef can make the same thing hundreds of times, refining little by little, like a concert pianist taking on Rachmaninoff. Me, I don’t have time to do something right 341 times in a row. So my solution? Fuck it up once or twice, and learn big lessons in the process. And if, after reading this, you are afraid to come eat at my house, think but this: I never invited you anyway.

Note to self: This is a pastry blender:

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