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The Lemon-Flavored Endeavors of a Kitchen Idiot

June 13, 2020

I’m not the best chef. Sure, I can follow a recipe pretty well—as long as I keep my eyes glued to the paper and my hands within reach of measuring tools. There is no inspired sprinkling of this and that, an artistic swirl of that and this. Rather, it’s just me, a terrified teen, following someone else’s recipe exactly and hoping for the best. At least, that’s what I thought.

My metamorphosis from complete kitchen idiot to advanced kitchen idiot began with lemon bars—those buttery, lemon-y confections positively glowing with extra calories you don’t need, but positively jam-packed with that extra flavor you’re craving.

I first encountered lemon bars in a book I was reading, where some character decided to buy a few from a bakery. Being completely ignorant of the confections, I immediately went and searched up “lemon bars” on Google, a decision I do not regret. Image after image of sugar-dusted perfection—sunshine-colored, citrusy custard perched upon buttery crust. At the behest of my sweet tooth, I ended up looking for a recipe.

I picked the first one I found on YouTube, asked my mom to help me, and started baking. Things didn’t turn out as I hoped. There was no perfect, crisp top; only a caramelized, overly burnt wasteland—steaming with curlicues of a treacherously yummy smell. Slicing the wasteland yielded greasy squares, dripping with barely set filling, perched on rock hard shortbread. My heart broke, along with a couple of my teeth.

My dreams of the perfect lemon bars fell apart like the crumbled bits of my crunchy shortbread. With a vengeance, I watched the YouTube video again, comparing the oily, browned square on my plate to the gloriously beaming square in the thumbnail. I bristled with fury. What sorcery was this? I had followed the recipe exactly! I had enlisted my mom’s assistance! I had—

But wait, perhaps, there were other factors I had not considered. I stopped and began to think. Determined as I was to make edible lemon bars, despite my apparent ineptness at baking, I rooted around the kitchen, scavenged the Internet, scoured every blog post and written recipe I could find. It was during this time that I began to realize my undiscovered potential as a chef. A cook, I realized, was someone who followed recipes exactly—but a chef was someone who reinvented, discovered, innovated recipes. Right now, I wasn’t reinventing lemon bars; I wasn’t turning them blue, adding fancy flavors. I wasn’t discovering them either—lemon bars had been made by countless people before me. But innovating? I was innovating.

My failed lemon bars became a crime scene. I became a culinary forensic scientist, following the tracks, determining the culprits of my failure. The first culprit was our oven.

Over a decade old, the oven had been a long-term fixture in our house’s kitchen. Its light had broken a while back, meaning we had to rely on flashlights to peer into its dark interior. Its timer had also broken, meaning whatever time we set would be unreliable and inaccurate. Its temperatures weren’t reliable either, measuring higher than the dial’s display. Aha! No wonder my crust had been crunchy, no wonder my custard had been burnt so.

The second culprit was our recipe. A close examination of the ingredients it called for and the steps it instructed revealed several oddities. For one, it called for an overwhelming amount of butter compared to flour. For another, it required butter to be mixed into the filling, which explained the greasiness of the finished product.
Now that I had determined the culprits, I was ready to start anew. This time, based on my research from dozens of recipes, I created a new one—tailored to fit the wild factors of our kitchen. This wasn’t just any recipe snatched from YouTube; no, it was my recipe, and I was going to test it.

I measured every ingredient carefully, fixed every parameter carefully. The shortbread I crisped together with my hands—softly, gently—till the powdery cloud coalesced into a crumbly dough, which I pressed evenly into a tin before it melted. I slid it into the approximate middle of the oven, adjusted the temperature, and set a precise timer. The filling I whisked—eggs, flour, sugar, lemon juice, zest, (no butter)—till the goopy eggs blurred into a silky custard the color of sunshine. I poured the golden custard over the just-baked shortbread—heard it sizzle quietly as I put the tin back in the oven.

I was unbearably nervous, yet excited. Could this batch be the lemon bars of my dreams?

When the timer went off, squealing jarringly, I rushed into the kitchen. A wonderful smell was everywhere, an invisible flower exploding out of the oven, sending fragrant tendrils blooming in every room of the house. But I didn’t trust it one bit. I pulled on mitts and yanked open the oven.

I settled my lemon bars on the counter and wept veritable tears of joy. The top looked like the inside of a pillowy marshmallow, pocked with tiny bubbles yet light, crisp, gorgeously so. The filling was just perfectly set—tantalizingly bright yellow, meltingly sweet with that tangy citrus explosion after which I had been chasing for so long. The shortbread was soft and crumbly, infused with the savory richness only butter and patient kneading could give you. In other words, I had done it! I had made the perfect lemon bars.

As I sat down with my family to eat them, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly proud, like an exhausted explorer who had just found El Dorado. Solid gold? Nah. Edible treasure? Yes. I’m still a kitchen idiot, but I’ve gained the newfound confidence of a budding chef. I learned that you can’t always rely on just any recipe off the Internet. Instead, with some confidence, research, and effort, anything is possible—even perfect lemon bars.


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