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.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the meringue is golden and slightly crispy.
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.
I agree, those blue-haired old ladies make some of the best cookies!
They really do. That little book was amazing. It was like a magician’s cookbook.
Yes, this looks like something from the famous Edmonds cookbook from New Zealand. The addition of Apricot would be perfect. Ah those years of rebellion!!!!
I love these classic old recipes! I’d love to see that cookbook. Thanks for commenting on my blog. x
This recipe sounds like magic, and so adaptable. And I love the account of your self-prescribed baking challenges. Coming from a family of incredibly intense bakers (generation after generation of ladies who go a wee bit crazy in the kitchen) I have a certain appreciation of following in family members’ footsteps but wanting to forge a bit off the beaten path.
Looks like you’re doing it! I’m still salivating at the thought of your dark chocolate pretzel deliciousness.
I know what you mean, my mum was a fantastic cook, and till today I don’t really dare to cook anything chinese for her (she only cooks chinese, but she does it bloodily well). The only things I dare do are western recipes, and baking which she doesn’t do at all, but which I find I’m not really that good at either. I’ve recently given up and decided to try to learn from her instead 😉
Watching my mother bake still just makes me want to cry. She’s so good at it! Thinking about it, I believe that as an adult I have baked something for her ONCE.
This looks delicious!
Thank you! I have been eating them nonstop since I baked them (one to go!). And thanks for visiting my blog.
My Mum is an absolutely incredible cook but she’s not as obsessed with baking as I am! We’re going on a bread making course next weekend which should be so much fun 🙂
These cookies look gorgeous – crispy and crumbly and chewy all at once. Looking forward to trying out the recipe!
They are a guilty pleasure! I would be very curious to hear what you think, what you liked and didn’t like, and what you changed, given that you’re quite the baker yourself. Have fun on the course, I’m envious!
I think I wish my mother was a pastry chef! Lucky daughter!
Those cookie bars look yum!
Thank you! I ate the entire batch (minus three cookies, which I gave to a friend) myself. They were tasty. (And easy!) xx
Hi Susan-made these the other day and, despite my less than stellar execution, they tasted fab. I love the addition of almond flour in the shortbread-does wonders for the texture and taste. I need to work on my meringue skills though…. oh well, must practice making more. Hope you are well in London.
I absolutely love that you cook my recipes. And that you report back. Seriously, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I’m glad you liked the cookies. They are a sweet sticky treat.
Sounds delicious! I can’t wait to try it.
Thank you Maya!
Looking for a new crunchy-sweet-melty twist on my weekly baking, and your apricot almond meringue cookies satisfies on all counts. Your stage by stage photos not only inform but draw me into wanting to savor the final product.
What a lovely comment! Thank you!
Beautifully decadent and filled with delicious different flavours, these are winner bars 😀
See you in a week 🙂
Choc Chip Uru
Wow you cooked these? I’m so pleased! Thank you!!!
My mum used to bake something like this when I was a kid but she couldn’t remember the recipe so I’ve been searching for it for ages! So excited to find this – can’t wait to try it again!!
Thank you 😊
Mairead — I am so delighted! Thanks so much for the comment. Please let me know if you try the recipe; I’d love feedback — positive or negative. Susan x
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. How was the recipe? I always love feedback. 🙂