Pucker Up, Martha!- Lemon Squares- 58 eggs, 47 cups of sugar, 38 sticks of Butter, and 41 cups of flour used so far- 144 recipes to go!

June 3, 2010

Martha's Lemon Squares

André's Lemon Squares

As I mentioned in my previous post, this cookie was baked in honor of a couple of friends who invited my partner and myself to their house for an intimate dinner. I knew they were fond of lemony desserts so Lemon Squares were a natural choice. Little did I know they had also prepared Lemon Squares that evening. I received a recent email from one of our hosts stating he had just consumed his 76th Lemon Square in addition to a dozen Lemon Madeleines and  was officially on the brink of death. I suggested a closed casket  lest everyone bear witness to the corpse with the permanent pucker.

Lemon Squares are a bonafide crowd pleaser and a breeze to whip up.

One of the more unusual steps is using a cheese grater to grate two sticks of frozen butter and incorporating the shavings with the flour and sugar to make the crust. While baking the crust, combine lemon juice, sugar, egg yolk, and milk to create the custardy lemon topping. The custard is poured directly onto the crust while it is still warm. Pop it in the oven and in less than 30 minutes you have lemon squares. Removing it from the 13 X 9 inch glass pan is simple, praise be to parchment paper. Before building your crust, butter and line the glass pan with parchment paper. Leave quite a bit sticking out of the sides. When your ready to remove the lemon squares from the pan to cool on a wire rack, simply use the parchment paper to “air-lift” the lemon squares and bring them in for a “soft landing” on the wire rack. Once thoroughly cooled, sift powdered sugar on top and cut into squares.

The result is DEE-licious! I think few things go together as well as coffee and lemony desserts. Lemon Squares are certainly no exception.

Now, back to my days at Swine Palace.

About the time I returned to Baton Rouge, a friend and former Catholic High School Drama Club member was becoming quite a local celebrity. James was a young, good looking, talented, funny, writer and actor who had been busy after high school carving out a niche for himself in the local, although small, theatre community. My parents and sisters had been following his career since I left home years earlier and my mother often had the compulsion to send me clippings from the local paper about his shows.

James had developed a series of one-man performances which audiences in Baton Rouge and surrounding Parishes couldn’t get enough of. He was regularly performing to sold out houses. While driving through the city, I counted quite a few billboards featuring announcements of upcoming chances to catch James in action. I would be lying if I pretended I wasn’t jealous. He had all the things needed to build a successful, although local, career. He had talent, a winning smile, charisma, charm, he was a devout Catholic, he was straight, married, a father, and well supported by his large, devoted family and a bevy of wealthy Southern widows.

There was nothing not to like about the guy. That is… except the comparisons. We were both relatively the same age. We went to the same school. We had done the same shows. Why was I struggling? Why was I working for minimal pay at a start-up theatre company on the campus of Louisiana State University while working ridiculous odd-jobs to make ends meet? Why was I living with a manic, alcoholic boyfriend who frequently had hysterical and drunken fits between jobs he was destined to lose after a few weeks? I’m talented! I’m smart! Where’s my freakin’ fan base? Where’s my family support? Where’s my wealthy Southern widow? These were my thoughts as I stepped into my first rehearsal for the play Good at Swine Palace.

Having just left the circus, one of the local odd-jobs I had taken was working as a clown, balloon sculptor,  magician, and juggler at local events. These gigs usually payed well, although they invited a lot of insults from teenagers and drunken shriners. I bet James never had to put on a clown outfit and make balloon giraffes for over-privilidged seven-year-olds. I’d just wrapped up one of these gigs in my thick, wool clown suit, drenched in sweat from the Louisiana heat, when I walked into the first rehearsal. I was hoping to get there in time to change into something more comfortable but traffic had delayed my arrival. I was going to have to launch into music rehearsal as Buster J Klown. Buster J. incidentally is my clown name. It was given to me before I left the circus by a close clown friend.

It’s funny that in the theatre, for the most part, one can simply state that they just got back from making balloon animals for 250 kids at a pumpkin festival and no one will bat an eye. Everyone in the room knew what we had to do to earn a buck.

The rehearsal began.

I placed a large, white, wire birdcage on the corner of the stage containing my pair of performance companions, Hocus & Pocus. They were my two white doves I used in the magic portion of my clown routine. They sat in their cages softly cooing as I taught the cast of twenty actors the music for the play.

The director, BK walked in just as the cast was rehearsing Bach’s chorale,  Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He looked at me. He looked at the cast. He looked at the doves. He looked back at me. He rolled his eyes and turned to sit in the back of the dark auditorium. He later described this scene as one of the most surreal moments in his life. He had walked into, what he described as – a possible dream sequence. A clown accompanies a group of Jewish peasants in singing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring while white doves rattled inside their cages. He confessed he considered that perhaps he’d suffered a small stroke upon entering the theatre.

Good was to be performed in a month’s time inside the Music and Dramatic Arts Building on LSU’s campus. Regular performances would build and audience. Audiences would build a board. Boards would raise money. Money would convert the dilapidated Swine Pavillion into the state-of-the-art theatre and future home of Swine Palace.

Good is a complicated play to say the least. It is unfamiliar to most theatre-goers. It’s subject matter is bleak. It is difficult to perform. It is near impossible to cast properly with much of the emotional weight of the show resting on the actor playing the lead character, Halder.

The play is essentially about a professor (Halder) dealing with a neurosis he’s developed. He has a band of musicians stuck in his brain. They play random bits of music that accompany almost every exchange he has, every event he encounters, every relationship he fosters. Sometimes it’s a bit of Kurt Weil, other times it’s Wagner. He receives counseling from his best friend who happens to be a therapist and Jewish. Did I mention the play is set in Germany and begins in 1933? Halder is dealing with a wife who suffers from chronic depression and a mother in the throws of senility. He has also begun an affair with one of his students. In a fit of guilt and self-loathing and under the pressure from his daily life, he drafts an essay in support of euthanasia for the incapacitated and the mentally ill. This document lands in the hands of the newly-formed Nazi party and over the course of the play Halder is slowly courted into the role of a high-ranking SS science officer. He leaves his wife, kids and mother for his young, blonde mistress. His therapist and best friend is gunned down trying to escape Germany with his family and Halder debates with him beyond the grave. Halder maintains that he’s a “good” person. All the death and grief he’s caused cannot be viewed as objective moral truths.

One particularly moving moment in the play is a quiet and emotional monologue Halder has about his need to be a good person. A good German. A good husband. A good son. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is played hauntingly by the band. All the while, a slow, and deep, red stream of blood flows from under the door high above center stage and down the long ramp stopping just short of the audience. In the end, Halder is alone. His fitful essay on euthanasia was essentially the first draft of the Nazi party’s final solution. He stands in the dark, fully clad in his SS uniform, a perfect Nazi soldier. He has arrived at Auschwitz and is greeted by a band. The band that played in his head. The band that played so many to their deaths. Halder believes he’s a good person and the blood continues to flow. Curtain.

I had never worked on such a powerful and truly moving piece of theatre. It forced the audience to self-reflect. Six million souls were lost at the hands of people who thought they were doing the right thing… who thought they were “good.” The audience was stunned. Many stayed in their seats frozen when the play ended. Applause was sparse but the silence spoke volumes. Never had a Baton Rouge audience been challenged like this before. I am very proud that I played a small role in making that happen. It made me want to do more. It felt like my niche.

While in rehearsals for Good, I had the chance to see James perform in one of his one-man shows. It was set in a local mental institution. He played a cast of characters, mostly patients dealing with a range of mental illnesses. His characterizations were broad. The script was funny and filled with terrific one-liners. The audience roared with laughter. I, however, did not. Mental illness has always had a strong presence in my family and I had never experienced a time where I found it cute, funny, or something to poke fun at. I left halfway through the first act to catch my breath and calm down. I looked over at  an older woman on a bench smoking in the shadows. “Not enjoying the play?” I asked. She looked up and I could see she had been crying. She replied- “My mother was in and out of mental institutions her entire life. She committed suicide a few years ago. Why are they all laughing?”

I stopped being jealous at that point. James had his gig and I had mine. James will be loved for his and if I went unnoticed, so be it. I like my gig better. He was telling his audience what they wanted to hear. I was telling mine what they needed to hear.

Incidentally, James still makes his living performing these same one-man shows. He still sells out each performance. His show about the mental institution is still a fan favorite and is frequently performed throughout the Southern Delta.

One Response to “Pucker Up, Martha!- Lemon Squares- 58 eggs, 47 cups of sugar, 38 sticks of Butter, and 41 cups of flour used so far- 144 recipes to go!”

  1. Russ Says:

    I understand all about envy — the furious kind of envy. How else can you respond to someone with so many advantages? I certainly didn’t know the answer in my youth. Sometimes I still don’t.

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