So I have this little problem. It started as a solution, if that counts for anything, a solution to the fact that for years now, I've been rude and impossible. Not always (I hope), but when the TV comes on, well, even I can't stand me. I cannot just watch television. Really, just can't. I am physically incapable of sitting (arg) still (oof) and just simply watching (ack!). I can be present, as in physically in the room. But the fingers, they must be moving. Filing papers (flip, flap). Dusting ('scuse me, pardon me). Moving furniture (sliiiide, whack!). Anything, save idle sitting. I'll die. I'm sure of it. Fortunately for my family, we don't watch TV much.
Still, I wanted to be a better team player when family movie night rolled around. So I dreamt up a solution. I'd get radical. I'd take up knitting.
As it happened, I was able, during my whirlwind Seattle stop last fall, to snag time on the calendar of an expert knitter. She's one of those people who can take two sticks and six skeins and turn out an absolute stunner of a sweater, complete with intricate detailing and elegant flaring and such universal compelling appeal that strangers stop her on streetcorners just for compliments. She's so talented, in fact, she can teach a stump to knit.
Well, maybe not a stump, exactly, but a daughter who might as well be. I am not crafty. For years, I've actually had trouble getting the word out. K-k-k-rafty. I kind of choke on it. Partly, this is because I have two left hands. And three small children. And zero patience, when it comes to these things. And partly, it's because I came of age in the Seventies which, in case you missed it, was the absolute, rock-bottom nadir of crafting. Think macrame plant hangers. Think Red Heart acrylic. Think this. (Sorry. A thousand words and all that.) But while I had my back turned, oh these past thirty years, well. Have you looked around lately? There are all these brilliant, clever sorts whipping up all manner of wonderful.
Still, I must admit, a small part of me thought, Knit? How quaint! What a throwback. Then I remembered my poor family. So I bucked up and buckled down and spent two hours learning one stitch. Enough for a scarf. Enough to get me launched. Enough to have me mumbling ...just one more row... by morning's end.
That was probably my first clue things might veer a little off course. On the bright side, my idea succeeded, brilliantly. I've watched two feature-length films since November, opening overture to closing credits. No darting eyes, no ripping pages, no gnashing of teeth. Just the quiet tap-tap of two bamboo needles. We're talking PR already, and we're just in Q1.
On the other bright side, I finished the scarf in no time. Two weeks, I think it took. Because, funny thing, that ball of Rowan PureWool kept turning up in the darnedest places. I'd imagined it would gather dust between films, on sabbatical, sort of. I hadn't imagined it would follow me around, day after day, like a puppy. Like a habit. Like a hobby. I had no plans for a hobby.
I need a hobby like I need a hole in my head. Hobbies take hands, and my hands were last free August 30, 2000. I mean, seriously. Who ever heard of a mother walking around, empty-handed? Empty-minded, baggy-eyed, saggy-thighed, sure. But my hands? Full to bursting. Always. I need tentacles, not hobbies.
But lo and behold, I kept stumbling over all these weird little divots in our days. After school snack. Homework help sessions. Three a.m. play dates, last November, with a Certain Someone still on Seattle time (dark days, those). Baths. Bedtime stories. After-all-that coffee klatches. Even over Christmas, when nothing happened save cookies and necessities, a second scarf somehow took off. And a third. Remember the Quiet Old Lady, whispering hush? Sitting and knitting, I kid you not. Turns out many days have a few such nooks, several busy-brain, empty-hand crannies. I filled them, of course.
I filled them with mindless rows, soft and warm, of something or other. What exactly, I can't say. I know knit, and purl, but can't remember which stitch is which. To me, it's still this way and that way, or easy and hard, or the normal and oh-no-here-we-go-again way. I've made weird holes and strange loops and odd haunted spots where the stitch stretches long like a fun-house mirror. I finally discovered there's a back and a front, though I can't for the life of me figure out what the implications are. Well, besides unraveling whatever I just put in. I still have two left hands. But I'm kind of loving it, anyway.
It's not the end product I'm loving, per se. I'm strictly in scarf territory, and don't see myself re-locating anytime soon. It feels a little silly, really, to even mention it in this space, where so much talent is on stunning display. A little like marching into Le Cordon Bleu and hollering "Guess what? I made TOAST!!"
But that's okay; I wasn't after excellence. What I was after, what I'm loving, is the way a pair of #10's and a ball of Brown Sheep ground me for bigger matters. Somehow, flashing fingers snag my mind into stillness, let it settle more deeply into The Really Important, like a stack of new stories or lego estates or coming full circle, a really good flick.
What I wasn't after, what I'm also loving, is the way this knitting business echoes the endless loops of motherhood, the dish-washing and nappy-changing and laundry-doing, all those necessary never-endings. The yarn, the needles, they're rote and monotonous, just like the rest. Except at the end of the day, instead of more dirties, there's a warm woolly scarf, the color of sky. It's an organizing rhythm, immediate gratification, strangely sustaining. Like breathing, I guess.
And then there's the Something To Show For It bit. Parenting's one of those gigs that runs awfully light on tangible progress. Real progress is rampant, I'm sure of it, even if it's only nailing down how not to do things tomorrow. But too often, the only solid signs of a day's work are a new basket of mud-scruffy cuffs and dinner's detritus, teetering in the sink. No Powerpoints signifying done, no promotions signed sealed and delivered. Knitting's progress. Concrete, quantifiable, Lookee-there! progress. The sort you can squeeze even into a week with a whole morning lost to dental unpleasantries and a whole evening hosting the after-hours plumber. A week with two kids wolloped by nasty-bad colds, and conferences and half-days and sick-days galore. A week when you need to eat snowflakes and bake birthday cakes and dig out from a wee winter storm. And build a first-ever igloo, let's not forget that. Even in a week such as this, well, would you look at that! Two skeins down, two more scarves nearly done.R-O-W-A-N keep prancing all over my brain, completely uninvited. Sometimes I send Spud and Chloë in to chase after them, but that's a whole separate problem. Serious trouble, I tell you.
Sort of like lemon bars, this knitting thing, I'm reckoning: awfully hard to stop once you've got started. Chocolate I can take or leave, but a great lemon bar leaves me weak in the knees. For years now I've baked the same bar, a fantastic Cook's Illustrated number that avoids all the usual pitfalls — too sweet, too stodgy, too stingy on the filling — and bakes up into a lovely tart treat. A few weeks back, I turned coat, tried something new. The technique was a bit different — bake that crust until brown — and the ratio a little odd — so many eggs, so much flour! — but oh, let me tell you. Those folks at Tartine deserve all the praise they rake in. These bars, these are The Ones. They check all the important boxes — shattering shortbread, proper pucker — and several more besides. Am I the only one who understood lemon bars to be a carpe diem affair, stunning day one, soggy the next? I'd come to terms, learned to inhale. But these bars here? They've got stamina. That brown butter crust survives three solid days (they promise four, but how would I know?). It also supports a trembling lemon layer of outrageous proportions. Just look at that crust-to-curd ratio — 1:5 easy, maybe 1:6. The bar's ripped. Not to mention a slice of sunshine on these cold, cold white days.
I'm not sure why I abandoned my old favorite. Maybe I needed a change. Maybe it's my radical new knitting self. All I know is I'm not looking back anytime soon. And if you know what's good for you, you'll bake up your own batch of serious trouble, spit spot.
Adapted from Tartine
One of the beautiful things about this bar is the consistency of the filling. It is soft and exquisite and yet holds its form admirably when sliced, a tricky little balancing act many lemon bars miss. The one catch is you must wait a few hours to slice it, else it will oop a bit here and there. Of course, if all you want is a knock-down, drag-out lemon bar, looks notwithstanding, well, just wait a few minutes to not sear your tongue, and you're set.
Tartine calls this a brown butter crust, which is a bit misleading. The butter itself is not browned before adding. Rather, the shortbread is baked several shades past blond (where most bar cookies stop), to a nice golden caramel. This adds flavor and firmness and strong bones to the bars, which is brilliant. I baked mine in a basic 9x13" Pyrex, to encourage browning, and found it done on the near end of the range. The more evenly you press and roll the raw crust, the more evenly the base will brown. That said, there will be darker spots and lighter; take it out when the darkest are very nearly on the verge.
I've used salted butter in the crust and upped the zest in the filling here, not one to let a little more zip go to waste.
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
zest of 3 lemons (organic, if possible)
1 cup + 2 Tbs. lemon juice, freshly squeezed (4-5 plump lemons)
6 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9x13" baking pan.
First, make the crust: Into the bowl of a standing mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment (a handheld mixer or even a pastry cutter would be dandy here, also), sift the powdered sugar. Add flour and stir to combine. Add butter, then beat on low just until dough comes together.
Scrape dough into buttered pan, and using fingers, level and press evenly into the bottom and 1/2" up the sides. Dough should be roughly 1/4" thick throughout. Use a round glass, turned sideways, or the flat bottom of a measuring cup, to roll/press dough firm and even. Bake until the crust colors a rich caramel brown, 25-35 minutes. Check halfway through, and rotate pan if baking unevenly.
While crust bakes, prepare the filling: Whisk flour and sugar to combine in a mixing bowl. Add lemon juice and zest to flour/sugar mixture, and stir to dissolve sugar. In a separate bowl, thoroughly whisk the eggs and egg yolks with the salt, until fairly smooth. Add eggs to lemon juice mixture and whisk thoroughly to combine.
When the crust is ready, pull out the oven rack with the baked base, and pour filling onto hot crust. (If you've baked the crust previously, re-heat it for 5 minutes or so in a hot oven to bring back up to temperature.) Reduce oven temperature to 300°F and bake just until center of filling is no longer wobbly, 30-40 minutes. Filling should not be loose in the middle, but a gentle jiggle will firm up as it cools.
Let cool completely, or as long as you can stand it. Cover and chill well before cutting with a sharp knife. Pretty fine with a cup of tea and two needles.