When I taught 6th Grade math a few years back, I was always looking for ways to make my job harder with fun-for-the-kids activities that tripled my workload. This resulted in many fine yet amorphous projects, such as writing songs about the properties of triangles and designing your dream room. One year, around the holidays, I took a turn for the crazier and decided that our geometry unit would be so much more fun if we applied it to making gingerbread houses. Hey! We could re-visit fractions by tripling recipe amounts, then launch right into architecture plans, calculating the area of gingerbread needed for the square, triangle and rectangle panels to build the houses.
Yes, that's correct. No graham crackers for me, boy. Let's get 19 pre-pubescent kids into the school kitchen to make dough, roll it out, cut it into shapes, bake it, and build it--all in a couple of 40 minute periods.
I've blocked out many of the specifics from this purgatory. Mostly I remember the moments. The most vivid one involved me staring in disbelief and panic at my hand mixer that had just been killed dead by attempting to mix the gluey boulder of a gingerbread dough-hunk in a triple-recipe-sized bowl. From where I stood in the cloud of spilled flour, I could hear something that sounded way too fun over by the tables; it was possibly a dough fight or exuberant winter break plans, or both. Meanwhile there were multiple pleas for me to come moderate arguments over the hot commodity decorating items like red-hots and pretzels.
At the end of the day, not one house was completed, and yet all of the candy was gone. You might be asking yourself, "What the hell was she thinking?" or, "How did she grade her students on that?" or, most importantly, "What kind of lame-ass recipe would break a hand mixer?" I couldn't even investigate that last one, because the recipe is long gone. I will likely never make gingerbread again for fear of the PTGD (Post Traumatic Gingerbread Disorder).
After that bitter, chaotic day, "GINGERBREAD!" became my new cuss word for the year when something was pissing me off. For a couple of months, the word actually had a greater shivery-rage impact on me than any of those other four letter lightweights. For me, this word encompassed the feeling you get when you accidentally dump yourself into hell. Maybe you don't ever accidentally do that. I do try not to.
But who am I kidding: I think I've found a new cuss word for the season. That word is "LEMONBARS!" Most of the lemon bar recipes I've tried so far said the same thing in their opening blurbs: Lemon bars are so easy to make! Shut up, recipes. It probably is easy to make if you're not ME. Seriously, though, I have learned important tips if you are planning on making lemon bars this holiday season.
First, most lemon bar recipes seem to follow the same concept: Make a quick shortcrust dough, press it into a pan, and briefly bake it to give the shortcrust a head start on cooking. Make a liquid of eggs, sugar, lemon juice, flour and (sometimes) lemon zest. Pour it over the crust, and bake it again. So simple!
Simple until you remove your zesty treat from the oven, only find your crust has turned into a shrunken cracker floating in lemon sauce--or a springy sheet of lemon gummy worm. How to avoid these? Apparently by disregarding all baking times. They vary wildly in both published cookbooks and internet recipes, even with those same ingredients in similar quantities.
Most recipes I found state that the crust will bake at 350˚ for about 15 to 20 (or even 35??) minutes, depending on the type of material your pan is made of. But ignore these times. If I were you, I'd start peeking at 10 or 15 minutes. You don't need to brown the thing. It should only be barely starting to brown around the edges, and most definitely it should be not shrinking yet.
Some recipes will tell you to cool the crust before adding the lemony liquid, whereas others will tell you to pour it in immediately after removing the parbaked crust from the oven. I liked the texture of the bars best when pouring the liquid immediately on the hot crust.
Regardless of whether you poured into a hot or cooled crust, and regardless of the cooking time your recipe advises, remove the bars when the top surface doesn't jiggle when you tap or shake the pan. I removed my last lemon bar batch yesterday at about 25 minutes, which was less than half the cooking time of a recipe in a well-edited, reputable cookbook. Oh, also: several recipes out there mention that for this second round of baking to reduce the temp to 300˚. This seemed to work well for me, especially after the trauma of a previous gummy worm slab.
Finally, I feel that it is helpful to cut the bars into tiny pieces to be palatable. They are intense and will leave you gasping for water if you make them into the size of a piece of cake. I am from the lemon zest school of thought, which necessitates generous amounts of sugar to balance the commanding sourness. So much sugar, in fact, that I'm questioning how important lemon zest is to me, after all.
Perhaps a mellower (and less sweet) bar will better match my vision for this dessert item for the Corks & Forks menu. It's a great bite-sized dessert so far, with a trio of happy, sour harmony--the lemon & shortbread cube, the cranberry coulis and the sliver of dried sour cherry. It's just that I'm curious what would happen if I made the lemon bar play backup singer rather than fronting the band. That cranberry flavor is quite a party animal and needs more play.
Oh, lordy. It's true. I'm going to have to try yet another version.