Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lemonade + cookies, from the beginning

I made you some lemonade today. That, and a batch of peanut butter cookies. Doesn't that sound nice right about now? I thought so, too. (I was having a craving).
Lemonade and cookies make me think of a lot of things, like porches and barbecues and Southern mansions with pillared verandas - to name a few. But, perhaps most of all, they make me think of my family's summer lemonade stands, when I was little. 

This is to say, I have a bit of experience in the subject of classic warm-weather treats, going all the way back to my days as a fledgling baker with a business sense. In the beginning, it started with my mother's ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking, and a tried-and-true money making idea that worked. My sister and I started having annual lemonade stands starting when I was about seven and she was eleven, and we continued to have them for several summers after that. Always looking for ways to fill my piggy bank (for I really did have one), it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it gave me an excuse to bake. Somewhere along the way we thought it would be smart to sell  peanut butter cookies to go with the lemonade, and sure enough, they were a big hit with the tourists.
Such old-fashioned traditions still stuck in the quaint small town I grew up in, Mendocino, a kind of New-England style village on the coast of Northern California. We lived right in the village, so we could set up our stand just a block away. Our parents, then, could not only watch over us, but also help us restock when we ran out of supplies. They also did most of the actual preparation of the lemonade, which was a precise mix of frozen concentrate, water and fresh lemon juice, stirred together with some sugar. It was cheaper than all freshly squeezed, but still really good, and no one could ever tell the difference. My mom and I made the cookies, using practically every inch of our tiny kitchen for the cooling sheets and the mixing bowls. My dad had built us a makeshift stand on top an old red wagon, with a big space inside to hold our treats and cooler, and wheels so we could roll it out to the street corner at noon. The wagon was a little bit clunky and unwieldy, but it served its purpose as vessel and counter top, and the setting made it charming. With an ocean view and a steady stream of passerby, I’d still be hard-pressed to think of a better spot to have a lemonade stand, anywhere.
In the peak of summer, it was like Disneyland in the streets, the village ice cream parlor barely able to keep up with the rush of vacationers hankering for a scoop in one of their homemade (and positively gigantic) waffle cones. Our competition was only a block and a half away, but we always did surprisingly well regardless. This was likely in part because we were so cute sitting out there behind our wagon and paper sign, and also in part because we so proud of our tart beverage, served with pride in medium-sized Dixie cups. Our cookies, furthermore, were small enough that they could be eaten after a scoop of ice cream, sans cone. Now, it wasn’t always easy, sitting for long hours in those hard folded chairs, dealing with the occasional grouchy tourist who complained about shelling out 25 cents for a cup, but somehow the making-people-happy part (and, yes, the extra money) was enough to make it all worthwhile.

My family moved to a different house shortly after I started college, which, although it was sad, gave us a welcome respite from the constant barrage of cars and pedestrians and noise. Back when, it was certainly nice to live in a place where I could easily walk to the store or stroll down to the beach two blocks away by myself, without having my parents worry about me. But now that I’m all grown up, I appreciate being able to get some distance from the frenzy of tourist season in town.
I moved back home a few months ago, and I’ve been particularly enjoying the peaceful environment of our house now, tucked away in the woods down a dirt road. We even have a garden now, with vegetables and lots of late spring flowers in bloom. It’s also a rather perfect place to sip lemonade and eat cookies, sitting on the deck in the afternoon. I’d been patiently waiting until the weather got nice enough for such a grand activity, and finally, finally it’s arrived, albeit in fits and starts. The sun has been out but it’s been awfully windy - but then again, this is so often the case with a California June. It teases you with signs of summer, with days made for sandals and breezy white dresses, and then leaves you waiting, breathless, until July.

It's been a long time since I’ve had homemade lemonade, and let me tell you, you are missing out if you haven’t yet made a pitcher of your own. There is a reason it’s iconic: it's nothing less than a refreshing wonder, speaking so clearly of Americana. I like to make it straight up, without mint or some other fancy infusion, just simple and pure, like how we made for The Tourists, but better. No frozen juice here, only lemons and water and simple syrup, always icy cold and mouth-puckeringly tart. Stay with the classic here, and you’ll never go any other way. As for the cookies, well, they speak for themselves. I tried a recipe from David Lebovitz’ new book, and they came soft and moist, with a bold punch of peanut flavor throughout. In essence, though, they are the same cookies I made when I was little, with the traditional criss-cross marks from the tines of a fork on top and a moist, delicate crumb. I’m envisioning a garden party with only hors d'oeuvres and sweets, with summer refreshers served in heavy glass pitchers. Who knows, maybe next week I'll be making sweet tea and benne wafers, since I seem to be set in a Southern frame of mind (did I mention I made collard greens and cornbread the other day?). Anyhow, stay tuned, my lovelies.

Adapted from Mark Bittman

This is not much of a recipe, really, but I thought it was worth sharing because I found it so incredibly good. Feel free to use Meyer lemons, too, if you can find them.

- 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 cups water
- ½ - ¾ cups simple syrup*

In a large pitcher, briskly stir the lemon juice and water together with a wooden spoon. Add ½ cup of the simple syrup, then gradually add more, tasting along the way, until lemonade reaches your desired level of sweetness. Serve cold with ice and a thin slice of lemon.

* To make simple syrup, combine 1 cup water and 1 cup granulated sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat immediately and cool. Simple syrup can be stored in the refrigerator indefinitely.