We've all gracefully descended thousands of flights of stairs in our lifetimes, but the one instance that stands alone in our memory is the time we fell clumsily down them. You know, the time on the second floor of the college dining hall when your toe caught the top step, hurling plates of half-eaten food onto the horrified diners below. (That happened to you too, right?) That's how it is with my first memory of cooking. I may have had several marginally successful endeavors in the kitchen during my childhood, but my first visceral memory is of complete and utter failure.
You know boxed lemon bars, right? You really can't mess them up. [But oh yes, YOU CAN.] Open the box, and there are two packets: one for the crust, one for the filling. You give each packet a stir, pat the crust into the bottom of the pan, and pour the filling over the top. Pop it in the oven, and you're done.
Unless you failed to read which packet was the crust and which was the filling, which I did. My 6-year-old self couldn't figure out why the crust was so gooey, and why the filling was so dry. With blind, ignorant faith, I put the pan in the oven and crossed my fingers for a miracle. But no. The result was a crevice-filled graham-crumb Sahara atop an oozing, volcanic layer of bright yellow puss.
Since then, I've learned how to read directions. I've also learned a bunch more about cooking from some pretty special French chefs in culinary school, as well as from my favorite cookbooks. One such cookbook, written by the wonderful Dorie Greenspan, shares a recipe for Pierre Herme's lemon cream tart that leaves any lemon bar you've ever eaten in the dust. This is the lemon tart that will change your life.
You'll make it for everyone you love, and for everyone you hope will love you. It will become your calling card, and you'll get used to fielding endless requests for it. You'll soon learn how to make it without a recipe, with your eyes closed, and with both hands tied behind your back (which is really helpful for winning over the heart of whoever has taken you hostage in your kitchen).
Go make this now, and forget all about lemon bars for a little while. And please, don't confuse the crust for the filling.
In the mood for a lemon dessert now? Try one of these.