Tuesday was a rough morning. I woke up at 2am and never fell back asleep. I managed to slog through my 5am run, but by the time I got in the shower, whatever autopilot I had been functioning on turned off and I forgot my usual order of operations. First I turned off the water before I had even touched the soap. Once I turned the water back on, I managed to soap up my washcloth and scrub myself down not once, but twice, because at some point in the interim I forgot that I had already done it.
When my dad was near the end of his life, he had a similar habit of repeating tasks over and over again. He would spend twenty minutes in front of the bathroom mirror brushing his teeth obsessively three times in a row. The cancer had spread to his brain and it gave him a strange type of short term amnesia. It made him confused and threw him off balance. It also created a strange childlike fascination wth very simple things, like the veins on the back of his hands. My mom used to ask me to follow him up the stairs in case he fell and he would whine at me, “Sarah, stop it,” while I hovered a step behind him with my arms out as if he were a toddler who had just learned to walk. It sounds awful and it was, but it was also fascinating, watching the power that every little brain cell has to alter our behavior, control our thoughts, and ultimately change the very core of who we are.
I remember the first time I saw my dad, just the two of us, after the diagnosis. We met up at Cafe Fleuri, one of our favorite lunch spots in Post Office Square, which was conveniently located between our offices. It was the first time I had ever felt awkward and unsure of what to say in front of him. It was the first time I had to confront his mortality and his vulnerability and the fact that the person who I trusted and respected most in the world wouldn’t be there forever.
I was thinking about all these things on Tuesday and I was feeling tired and sad and a little lost. We were having friends over for dinner the next night and I needed to start prepping food when I got home from work. I made a new (to me) lemon bar recipe with a whole pureed lemon in the curd layer. As I was pressing the crust in the pan and preparing the filling to cover it, I realized that this was exactly the type of dessert that dad and I might have shared at Cafe Fleuri after a decadent lunch of lobster bisque and slow cooked brisket on a brioche roll. We would eat while the pianist played behind us and light streamed in from the skylights. It was a beautiful little cafe and they made delicious food. And these lovely little lemon bars, rich with butter and lemon rind, brought me back to those times when dad and I, in the middle of our workdays, enjoyed a satisfying meal and the pleasure of each others’ company without a care in the world.
Whole Lemon Bars from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
For the crust:
1 cup/125 g all purpose flour
1/3 cup/65 g sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons/115 g or 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into chunks, plus extra for greasing pan
For the filling
1 small-to-medium lemon
1 1/3 cup/265 g sugar
8 tablespoons/115 g or 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Place a rack in middle of the oven and preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Cut two 12- inch lengths of parchment paper, and trim each to fit the bottom of an 8- inch square baking pan. Press the first sheet into the bottom and up the sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, running it perpendicular to the first sheet. Lightly butter exposed parts of parchment or coat them with a nonstick cooking spray. Set the pan aside.
2. Make the crust: Blend the flour, sugar, and salt together in the work bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is powdery, but if firmly pinched, will hold the pinched shape. Turn the dough crumbs into the prepared baking pan and press the dough evenly across the bottom and about ½ inch up the sides. Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Should any parts bubble up, gently prick them again with a fork. Leave the oven on.
3. Make your filling: Cut your lemon in half, and here’s where I need us all to be, briefly, quite fussy. Is the white part of the skin especially thick? If the widest part of the white is ¼ inch thick or less, continue on to the next step; your lemon is good to go. If any part of it is thicker than ¼ inch, however, I find it safest to remove the skin from half the lemon or the bitterness of the pith can overwhelm the bars. To remove the skin, place half the lemon cut-side-down on the cutting board, and remove the skin and pith from the entire half in downward cuts and discard it. The second half, even if just as thick, can be used as is.
4. Cut your lemon halves into thin rings and discard any seeds. Toss the lemon rounds – lemon flesh and peel – in the bowl of your food processor, add the sugar, and run the machine until the lemon is thoroughly puréed, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and again run the machine until the mixture is smooth, scraping down the sides of the work bowl as needed. Add the eggs, cornstarch, and salt and pulse the machine in short bursts until the mixture is evenly combined.
5. Pour the lemon mixture over the crust and bake it for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the filling is set. You can test this by bumping the pan a little; it should only jiggle slightly. In my oven, I find that the point at which the filling is set is also when the lemon bars start to get very light brown on top.
6. Let the pan cool completely on rack or in the fridge. Gently cut around the outside of the parchment paper to make sure no sides have stuck, then gently use the parchment “sling” to transfer bars from pan to cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.