Friday, April 27, 2012

Ultimate Lemon Bars

Though I'm a lemon lover, I'm not a lemon bar person. Generally I find the custard too sweet and cloying, aided and abetted by a mushy, sugary shortbread crust that tips the scales in the battle of tart versus sweet too far to the sweet side for my taste.

Then I tried these lemon bars with a brown butter shortbread crust. Now I'm a believer.

The extra step of browning the butter gives the crust an added depth of nutty flavor. I suspect it may even help keeping the crust firm, so that it can stand up to the lemony custard that gets added on top.

You might be tempted to use Meyer lemons in these, which I've never liked. To me they taste more like oranges than lemons, which perhaps explains why they were considered garbage years ago.  

Stick with the real thing. You'll be handsomely rewarded.

Lemon Bars with a Brown Butter Shortbread Crust
(via Martha Stewart)


For the Crust

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
Pinch of salt

For the Filling

6 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of 1 small lemon, finely grated

For Serving

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)


Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan; line baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a 3-inch overhang on all sides.

Make the crust: In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat until barely browned in color. Remove pan from heat and pour butter into the bowl of an electric mixer, leaving any burned sediment behind. Transfer butter to refrigerator until solidified. When solidified, remove from refrigerator and let soften slightly.

Transfer bowl to electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; beat until butter is smooth. Sift flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt into bowl; mix on low speed until combined.

Transfer dough to prepared pan and press evenly into bottom of the pan using the back of a measuring cup; it should be about 1/4 inch thick. Transfer to refrigerator; chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Transfer baking pan to oven and bake until crust is golden brown, about 20 minutes. If crust appears to be browning unevenly, rotate pan.

Make the filling: Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, egg yolks, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour and sugar. Add lemon juice and zest; whisk to dissolve granulated sugar. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and whisk until well combined.

When the crust is golden brown, pull out oven rack and evenly pour filling mixture directly over hot crust (if crust has finished baking before filling has been made, return crust to oven for a few minutes so that it is hot). If air bubbles appear on the surface, remove them using a kitchen torch held 4 to 5 inches from the surface, moving in a slow even motion. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake until center is set, 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove baking pan from oven and transfer to a wire rack. Let lemon bars cool completely before covering and transferring to refrigerator until chilled.

Using a sharp knife dipped in hot water and wiped dry, cut lemon bars into twenty-four 2-inch squares and dust with confectioners' sugar just before serving, if desired.

Lemon bars will keep in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pignoli Cookies--Nut a Mistake

The words "dessert" and "pine nuts" might not seem to go naturally together, but for Italian-American bakeries, pignoli cookies ("pignoli" is Italian for pine nuts) have been a longtime staple.

There are two tricks to making these. The first is to find almond paste, which is similar to marzipan, only much less sweet. One of my cooking instructors insists on using almond paste that comes in a can, like Solo, rather than from a tube, which he calls wax. My local grocery store occasionally carries it (and when they do, I stock up). You can also get it at cooking stores, Italian food stores, or online at Amazon.

After you mix the ingredients, a combination of the paste, granulated and confectioners' sugar, egg whites, vanilla, a bit of flour, and some salt, you end up with a super soft, sticky dough, so sticky in fact, that I worried I'd made a mistake the first time I made these. Here's where the second trick comes in. You need to scoop up tablespoon-sized balls of dough, and then press them into a bowl of pine nuts, so that the entire surface is covered in nuts, then transfer to a baking sheet. I ended up with a great deal of dough on my hands and in the bowl of pine nuts, even when I tried using "dampened fingers" as my recipe suggested. Next time, I may try flouring my hands or coating them in powdered sugar.

That's really it. You bake the cookies at 350 for about 12 minutes, until they're just just starting to turn golden brown on the edges. Don't let them go too much further, as you want a soft, tender cookie, with a strong almond flavor. The texture and sweetness is contrasts nicely with the slightly bitter crunch of the pine nuts.

Pignoli Cookies
(from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook)

Yield:  18 cookies

7 ounces almond paste
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting
2 large egg whites
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, beat almond paste and sugars, the add egg whites, vanilla, and finally the flour and salt, until a smooth paste forms. Dough will be sticky!

With floured or dampened hands (your call) scoop out balls of dough, 1 tbsp each, and dip into a bowl of pine nuts. Try to cover the surface evenly with pine nuts.  Place on baking sheets (pine nut-side up) 2 inches apart. Fill in any bare spots with remaining pine nuts.

Bake until cookies and nuts have just started to turn golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer cookies on parchment to wire rack to cool completely. Use a metal spatula to loosen the cookies CAREFULLY from the parchment. With a fine sieve, dust cookies with powdered sugar. Cookies can be kept in airtight container for up to 4 days, or frozen for 3 months.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Passover Dessert--Hold the Sponge Cake

photo by Anthony Palatta
With Passover comes the perennial dilemma of how to make desserts that A) have no flour or any other bread products and B) taste good.

There's no need to panic, or to resort to sponge cake. Here are a few options:

1.  Try a flourless chocolate cake or flourless cookie like these easy and delicious almendrados (pictures), which used ground up almonds instead of flour.

2.  Make a fruit cobbler, topped with a kosher for passover cake meal based crumble, mixed with butter (or margarine) and sugar.

3.  Make a lemon curd or lime curd (you can substitute margarine for butter). Whip up non-dairy whipped cream topping and fold the curd into the whipped cream to make a lemon or lime mousse. Serve with fruit. Or use as a topping for store-bought kosher for passover pound cake or--gasp--sponge cake.

4. Chocolate bark.  Melt some chocolate in a baking pan, drop nuts or dried fruit, and let it cool, then break into shards. 

5. Vegetarian or dairy-based meal?  Creme brulee!