Monday, April 20, 2009

Lemon Bars to Please Anyone

Once, when I was in college and reeling from a breakup that was at least half my fault, I bought a whole bag of lemons, netted together like many suns. It was springtime in Los Angeles, and the lemons were bright and somehow comforting. What to do with them? I wondered. And then it came it to me. Lemon bars. I called up my sister, who I knew had the recipe my mom always made, and I did the only thing I knew how to do when the world had turned upside-down. I baked. Squeezing all those lemons seemed to carry some kind of promise that the rest of my life could not. When life gives you lemons, I thought, make lemonade.

Now, as I sit at my desk trying to write final papers, I am also trying to keep this adage in mind. You see, I had high hopes for graduate school. I had these romantic visions of me sitting in the dimming light of my “office,” writing endlessly interesting papers and agonizing over ideas that mattered. When I read The Namesake I thought the main character’s girlfriend-the Indian one with the long name that started with an M-was amazingly dark and intellectual and interesting. I envied her life surrounded by endlessly interesting people, cooking food and talking about writers and art and theory. Because that’s what you do in grad school—right?

Instead, I am learning about procrastination. This—my boredom—is not what I expected of graduate school. I thought it would be entirely fulfilling; instead, I am disappointed. I have never been so bored in my life, in fact, and so I have learned the ancient skill of procrastination. This is actually a relief because I was starting to feel left out for never having done it; people always talk about it like something they secretly love. Now I see what they mean, and I’m suddenly rather adept at it. While I am supposed to be reading about how the “academy is in crisis,” “examining my own place” in this intellectual cave and the “nature of the discipline of English,” while I should be analyzing classroom transcript and planning my tutoring sessions, I am instead thumbing through cookbooks, stopping at each glossy photograph that lures me onwards, begging I give myself up to its pages.

But here, today, is an assignment that is bright, lemony yellow, and, finally, interesting. I am supposed to make lemon bars. These I am to bring to my last Discourse Analysis class at my professor’s house. A year ago, this would have sounded thrilling, this gathering of graduate students to discuss conversation theory at a professor’s place, but I know better now. And so, lemon bars. I chose them because they are fast, and easy, and that is what I needed on a day when I had 30 pages left to write before California and not enough time. So lemon bars. What a beautiful thing. Instead of finishing my paper for Discourse Analysis I will get to mix sugar and flour and egg yolks and freshly squeezed lemon juice and do what makes sense to me when the rest of the world has not delivered what I thought it had promised—bake.

Lemon Bars to Please Anyone

One of my mother’s friends gave this recipe to her in 1976, and me, having been born just a few short years later and having enjoyed these bars throughout my life, have been thankful ever since. Despite never having known where the recipe came from (it was one of those mysterious cards in my mother’s blue and white checked recipe box), in 2003 I tracked down the source: they come from the Portland, Maine Symphony Cookbook, or so my mom’s friend thinks. I imagine there is a person attached to this recipe who probably submitted it to the book, but I can’t begin to give that person credit, unfortunately.

In any event, I recently visited my mom’s friend in a magical place in the mountains of New Mexico, a “town,” if you can call it that, about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. Really, it is a collection of clearings with burnt sienna and sandy beige colored houses that must match the earth in summertime. A Buddhist stupa sits in a clearing in the woods where people go for spiritual gatherings, and now the lemon bars are somehow tangled up in my mind with this place, Buddhist goodwill filling their centers and oozing out when you eat them. My sister promised me, years ago, that they are guaranteed to please anyone, and I can see now that she was right: they can even please disillusioned graduate students who might just be in the wrong profession.

For the Bars:

2 c flour
½ c powdered sugar
1 c (2 sticks) melted butter
4 eggs, beaten
2 c sugar
1 tsp baking powder
4 T flour
4 T freshly squeezed lemon juice*
More powdered sugar, for the tops

*My mom says that you must use freshly squeezed lemon juice for these, and she’s right. If you are not going to do so, don’t bother making them.

In a large bowl, mix the 2 c of flour with the powdered sugar and butter. Press into the bottom of a 9x13-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in the same bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, baking powder, 4 T flour, and lemon juice. Pour filling over baked crust and bake for another 20 minutes. Allow to cool, then cut into squares. Sift powdered sugar lightly over the tops of the bars. The bars will keep about 3 days at room temperature or longer in the refrigerator.

Cutting tips: Use a long, sharp knife and wipe it off after each cut. I like to cut the first several strips in the pan and then move them to a plate until I have enough space in the pan to slip a spatula under a large piece and put it on a cutting board. This keeps the crust in-tact.


becca said...

These lemon bars look awesome! Baking is such a great stress relief :) And I (and quite a few other people I've talked to) are with you in how we feel about graduate definitely is not what we were anticipating.. I'm still not done with my final papers and it's just been so hard trying to even get started! At least we'll be done by the end of this week...

Katie Miller Roskamp said...

They sound delicious! Steve sent me your baking blog a little while back. I've gotten more into baking and cooking the last few years myself, though it's always been an activity I would do with my mom and grandma. Glad to see you're both doing well, if a bit underwhelmed with life. Tell Steve hello from us! Katie, Joel & Leland.

rissykay99 said...

I feel for you. I remember feeling that way half way through my MA. It's not a fun thing.

Let me know if/when you're in CT- we should do a baking get together. My new kitchen (in the house- we move in the 21) is fabulous!

Paula - bell'alimento said...

I absolutely adore Lemon Bars! Your baking is amazing! Can't wait to give them a go!