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Lemon Bars and True Genius

I am not a baker. Whether it’s my innate lack of chemistry and physics acumen or the delicate touch required for most pastries, mine are frequently a failure. Countless baking disasters, however, do not stop me from marching forward. My first effort this Christmas season—Martha Stewart’s Chocolate Crackle Cookies—had no crackle whatsoever and were more like cake than cookies. Still, I tried Ina Garten’s Lemon Bars the very next day.

The filling looked and tasted like heaven because that part required no actual baking. I set it aside, just as Ina suggested, and embarked on the crust. My first mistake was doing it unsupervised. When the directions called for a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking sheet, I couldn't picture it. I surveyed everything in the cupboard with a tape measure in hand. Had Jodi been home, she no doubt would have told me that a cookie sheet would never work. Since she was gone, it wasn’t until I tried pouring the rich, lemon filling into the very shallow too-brown crust, that I could see the problem unfold. As the thick, yellow river flowed over the edges and onto the counter, Jodi returned and offered to help. “Let me make another crust in a deeper pan,” she said sweetly.

“No, just forget it,” I said brusquely. “We have plenty of way-too-dry chocolate cookies,” I added, flinging the potholders onto the counter. “We can live without this mess. I'm just not a baker.” An icy silence followed as I cleaned up the counter and the floor below it. I didn’t really want to throw out the nearly two cups of that heavenly lemon filling, but my dessert-making ego had aided me in constructing a gigantic wall between me and Jodi. I couldn’t seem to muster the humility to ask her to make a new crust. Fortunately, as I held the bowl above the sink and reached for a spatula to get rid of the sweet, yellow goo, better judgment overcame me.

“Okay,” I said, still a little begrudgingly. “You can make a new crust.” In what seemed like moments, Jodi had fixed the situation and was covering the lovely bars with a dusting of powdered sugar. And then I got it—not only what had happened with the lemon bars, but what I think will serve as the basis of a better attitude for the new year: We each bring our own strengths to every situation, and it’s the combination of those that makes life as lovely as it is.

Although I have never considered myself a genius even for a second, I somehow expect brilliance and perfection from myself in every setting.

I forget this often. I always think I need to know how to do all the phases of every operation by myself. This expectation prevents me from even starting on many tasks. It never occurs to me to say, “Hey, I’m good at Part A. Why don’t you come over and do Part B?” Instead, I just feel inadequate and limited because I can't do it all. Although I have never considered myself a genius even for a second, I somehow expect brilliance and perfection from myself in every setting. And, I might add, I'm furious with myself when it doesn't appear. None of this makes me a good team player and it only promotes the notion that the mediocrity of my solitary work is what I bring to the table. Meanwhile, every venture I take on—whether it’s dessert or a book proposal—is infinitely better and richer if I remove my wall, open my heart and my brain, and ask for some help.

It turns out that everything is just so much better when we all contribute. I know this on some level after years of working with super-talented people who were kind enough to share their unique skills and talents. But our fierce independence and our overblown expectations of what we should know how to do often get in the way.

So let’s make 2018 a year to expand our resources by sharing with each other. If it’s just too hard to “take” something from someone else, think of it as a barter system. You bring your best work and ideas and I'll bring mine. I’m figuring I might even begin to see my own contributions with a more generous eye. Maybe not when it comes to lemon bars, but anything is possible.

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