When I was an awkward pre-adolescent with dreams of becoming a chef, my immediate goal was to differentiate myself from my mother. My mother is possibly the world’s best pastry chef. After a long day of work at the laboratory (both of my parents are scientists), she would effortlessly whip up beautiful airy genoises, cream puffs, Polish poppy seed cakes, elaborate Black Forest cakes (remember those?), delicate pralines, rich ganaches, and meringues shaped like the letter S for me and R for my sister. Her bible was Paula Peck’s The Art of Fine Baking, the book from which (much later) I too taught myself how to bake. But, at the age of 11, achieving parity with my mother seemed impossible. Anyway, I didn’t want to IMITATE, I wanted to DISTINGUISH myself.
So first I decided I’d be a bread baker, because bread was the one thing that my mother didn’t bake. Oh, the zeal with which I aimed to conquer Bernard Clayton’s The Breads of France! Like every home baker, I was stymied by how to achieve a perfect baguette. At age 12, I went to France for the first time. I have a vivid sense-memory of the crackle of the crisp-but-yielding crust and the uniform soft, slightly moist white interior. In Paris that summer, a warm baguette, split open and smeared with brie, was my idea of heaven. (It still is.) Bagels were the next horizon. I splattered my poor parents’ kitchen with soft white dough and potato water. Despite repeated efforts, my bagels were always a little chewy, a little lumpy, and a little heavy. The bagels in New York were the best thing I’d ever tasted (besides French baguettes) and I couldn’t understand WHY I couldn’t duplicate them. (I suspect it may have had something to do with the oven, but maybe I’m in denial.)
At the age of 13 I became really rebellious. My mom was a superlative baker of French, classical pastry. I wanted to learn how to bake like an AMERICAN. At a church fundraiser in upstate New York (clarification: I am Jewish, and atheist. I.e., not my church), some sweet blue-haired old ladies were selling a little green homemade “book” of all their best cookie recipes. Those were seriously the best cookies I’ve ever baked or eaten. The best. Every damn recipe a miracle. Tragically, I think I lost that little book in college, along with half my other possessions. But I remember that one of my favourite recipes, which I baked innumerable times, was a meringue jam shortbread cookie bar.
This represents my effort to duplicate that recipe. Of course I’ve updated and tweaked it just a bit. For one, I’ve added almonds. There’s almond flour in the shortbread, which makes the buttery shortbread cookie crust beautifully light and crumbly. There’s almond extract in the meringue topping and slivered almonds on top. I’ve used apricot jam, which in addition to pairing divinely with almonds, has a lovely tartness that offsets the sweet pastry and meringue. (Try to find jam that’s not too sweet, or better yet, use your own.) This, however, is a recipe that begs variations. Try it with ground toasted hazelnuts instead of almonds, with raspberry jam, or with sour plum preserves. And, if you do, let me know what you’ve done, how you’ve liked it, and whether it brought back any memories for you.
2 eggs, separated
200 grams unsweetened butter (about half a pound), softened to room temperature
100 grams (about a cup) finely ground toasted almonds (almond flour)
100 grams (about a cup) all-purpose flour
130 grams (about a cup) caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
About 1/3 cup slivered almonds
150 grams apricot jam
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius (375 degrees Fahrenheit).
Beat together the butter, 100 grams of the sugar, salt, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one by one, beating thoroughly after each addition. Using a rubber spatula (your hands work fine for this part too), fold in the flours. Try not to overmix. You should have a nice soft dough. Pat the dough into the bottom of an ungreased baking pan. My baking pan was 9” x 9”. You don’t want the dough to be thicker than ½ centimeter (thinner is better), so use that as a guide. Chill in your fridge for about 15 minutes, and then bake until firm and golden (about 20 minutes). This is your shortbread cookie base.
Allow to cool completely in the pan. While it is cooling, increase the oven temperature to 200 degrees (390 degrees Fahrenheit; 400 is fine) and prepare your meringue. Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl until creamy, then gradually add the remaining sugar and the almond extract. Beat meringue to soft peaks; you don’t actually want this meringue too stiff.
Spread the jam in an even layer over the cookie base, avoiding the edges so your cookies won’t stick to the pan. Spread the meringue over the top and sprinkle with slivered almonds.
Allow to cool for at least half an hour in the pan, then dust with confectioner’s sugar, cut into bars, and transfer to a rack. Wallow in happy memories. Makes about a dozen 2”x 3” bars. Of course, if you’re not a piglet like me, you can cut them a wee bit smaller.