Cookbook Spotlight: How to Bake Everything by Mark Bittman (+ my favorite classic American pie crust recipe)
One of the first cookbooks I ever owned was Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything". True to its title, the book has recipes for everything from stir-fried squid to rhubarb compote to fresh pasta dough. Originally published in 1998, it is still one of favorite gifts to give people who are interested in getting into cooking. It has so much valuable cooking information, all presented in an approachable way. As you become a more experienced cook, you can use the recipes as a jumping off point and then give them your own twist. I have acquired my fair share of cookbook titles since the 90's, but I still come back to this book as my handy all-around kitchen resource.
In 2016 (after many books and 25+ years as a columnist for the New York Times), Bittman published "How to Bake Everything", a baking-focused follow up to the original title. Have I baked everything in the "How to Bake Everything" book yet? Not even close. But this is besides the point. This book joins the original as a go-to reference when the mood strikes for strawberry pie, ricotta cheesecake, or potato samosas. And recently, when I needed to make a batch of lemon bars, I turned to Bittman's lemon square recipe as a starting point.
The thing about lemon bars is that some recipes contain gelatin, which help the bars to set. But I'm personally a fan of lemon bars that do not contain gelatin, for a few reasons. Lemon bars made with gelatin give you a clean, precise slice when all is said and done. They're great for presentation. Lemon bars without gelatin are more gooey, less showy, and meant for Sunday afternoons sitting on the porch catching up with a close friend. They are completely lacking in pretension-- they may not totally hold their shape while you're trying to plate them up, so you might as well eat them right out of the pan. Best of all, the recipe requires only butter, sugar, powdered sugar, salt, flour, eggs, lemon juice and zest, and baking soda-- items you are likely to already have in your house. They are perfect when you want to pull off that last minute fresh-baked treat but you don't have time for an extra trip to the store.
Instead of using the crust in Bittman's recipe, I substituted one of my all-time favorite pie crust recipes, straight from the recipe archives of my grandfather. At some point he ripped this Graham Snap Crust recipe out of a magazine, made a copy of it, and cemented a place for it in my heart and in our family's recipe repertoire. Here's the crust recipe, which in my opinion, makes the perfect crust for a lemon bar:
10 gingersnaps, crushed
4 graham cracker rectangles, crushed
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 tbsp sugar
Combine all of the ingredients and press into your baking dish, then bake at 375 F for 4-5 minutes to set the crust. For a super thick crust on your lemon bars, I highly recommend doubling the recipe. On another note, I always, and I mean always, add extra lemon zest to my lemon bars. I'd like to think that Bittman would agree that recipes are more like suggestions than rules. Dabble with a different crust, add a little extra zest, and that's when they start to become your own.