© Carmen Rockett | Dreamstime.com
Every season has its rituals, and spring is no exception. As April turns to May, hunting for colored eggs or the afikoman matzah (some families do both) gives way to bake sales and Mother’s Day brunches. It’s the time of year when a person needs all-occasion treats. Most of us think of cookies or maybe cakes, but this year I’ve been obsessed with bars and pies.
Take brownies, for example. They have all the chewy sweetness of cookies but are easier to crank out on a schedule crowded with work and kids’ activities. My winter bar this year was a brown-butter blondie with a bit of salt on top. The sweet-salty combination made it almost impossible to eat just one. But since they were bars, I could cut them into tiny cubes that made it possible to avoid sugar shock. Here’s the thing, though. After a long winter, we’ve had enough of those warm, savory flavors. We crave something bright and fresh. It’s a great time to look at lemons.
I guess it’s possible to forget how ethereal, how transporting, a good lemon bar can be. I’ve ingested my share of gluey, listless oblongs at office parties and school functions. But don’t write them all off. Good ones are pretty enough to please your grandmother, but husbands and children love them, too. There are easy versions that use flour or cornstarch, so you don’t have to precook the filling. These can be very nice — much better than the ones from a box — but not always perfectly lip-puckeringly lemony. Then there are versions that call for cooking the curd filling on the stove. You pour it onto a warm pre-baked shortbread crust before finishing in the oven. These bars are the Platonic ideal: citrusy, buttery, luxuriously smooth on top yet flaky down below. However, they are a little too time-consuming for general use.
There is an easy, super-lemony dessert that you can bring anywhere: lemon chess pie. An old Southern recipe, it combines the intense flavor of a no-starch lemon bar with the ease of no-cook toppings. Plus, it’s pie. Pie does many of the nice convenient things that bars do, but you also get pie points. You can slice it up thinly if you want small portions. You can top it with whipped cream and strawberries if you want to make someone happy on Mother’s Day. Best of all, if you use a food processor and a frozen pie crust, you can make it in pretty much no time flat. And that’s worth turning into a springtime ritual.
Lemon Chess Pie
Adapted from A Love Affair with Southern Cooking by Jean Anderson
- An unbaked 9” pie crust, either homemade or frozen, unbaked
- Zest of 3 large lemons, either grated fine or cut in strips (if you’re using a food processor) with a vegetable peeler
- Juice of 3 large lemons
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 5 eggs, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 325. If your eggs are cold, place them in a bowl of hot tap water to get them to room temperature quickly. Melt butter in the microwave using a glass measuring cup, or melt it on the stove. Place the pie crust on a baking sheet lined with tinfoil.
Food Processor Method
Place strips of lemon peel and sugar in food processor and run it till the zest is fine and blended with the sugar. Blend in juice, adding eggs one at a time. Finally, with the machine running, pour melted butter through the tube and process till entirely blended.
In a large bowl (with a pouring spout, if you have one), whisk together finely grated lemon zest and sugar till all the sugar looks lemony-yellow. Whisk in juice, then beat in eggs one at a time. Add butter in a thin stream, beating it in all the while, till entirely blended.
Pour filling into crust and bake 45 minutes, till the filling is set but still slightly jiggly and the top has a bit of golden-brown coloring. Allow it to cool to room temp before serving. Sliced strawberries and whipped cream go nicely on top.