Scientists basically agree on five “tastes”: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory (or umami). These are the sensations registered by our tastebuds. We can distinguish these aspects of a food even if we plug our nose, or have a bad cold.
What we can’t register when our nose is plugged is “aroma,” a sensation perceived by the nose. People say they can’t taste anything when they have a cold, but really what they mean is that the food has no flavor, because flavor depends on aroma.
taste + aroma = flavor
Go ahead and try it. Plug your nose and try a grain of salt. It still tastes salty. Try some grains of sugar with your nose plugged, and you’ll still distinguish sweet.
Now take a slice of lemon and a slice of lime, toss them in a bowl, close your eyes, and pick one up. With your nose plugged tightly, take a bite. Is it a lemon or a lime? You probably find it difficult to tell, but it certainly tastes sour. Now unplug your nose and continue chewing and immediately the full flavor will manifest to you, and you should recognize what it is you are eating.
All of these tastes play off each other to produce dimension, and aromas play off each other to produce explosions of flavor. Then there’s texture, which also plays a large roll in the physical sensation of chewing, but it’s a much more expansive category that’s hard to nail down. (More on that topic later!)
Cooking and baking is about experimenting and creating to achieve the right balance of these elements, to produce the effect you are going after.
These bitter orange curd bars with pistachio shortbread crust are a result of Maria and my dreaming up thrilling combinations of taste, aroma, and texture.
I visited Maria in Houston a few weeks ago, and after a day of cake baking (oreo cake with white chocolate cookies & creme buttercream, and strawberrry pound cake with fresh strawberries and cream cheese whipped cream) we had a whole slew of leftover egg yolks.
That, combined with the Smith & Sons pistachios and oranges she had on hand (they are amazing; give them a try!) led to this dessert creation.
Sweet, sour, bitter, creamy and bright orange curd on top, salty, crunchy, nutty pistachio shortbread on the bottom, these cheerful bars are a balance of taste, texture and aroma that works an explosion of flavor in your mouth.
bitter orange curd bars with pistachio shortbread crust
[For the crust]
3/4 cup salted roasted pistachios*
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cubed
*note: if using unsalted pistachios, increase salt in crust to 1/2 teaspoon.
[For the filling]
scant 1 cup of juice, from 1 lemon and 3-4 oranges
zest of 1 lemon and 3-4 oranges
scant 1 cup white sugar
7 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
pinch of salt
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cubed
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Line a 9x9 square baking pan with foil, leaving a little overhang, and grease lightly.
Prepare pistachio shortbread crust. Place pistachios in a food processor and pulse until ground into small bits. Add flour, powdered sugar, and salt and process to combine, about 10 seconds. Add in cubed stick of butter, and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Dump shortbread mixture into prepared pan and use your fingers or the bottom of a cup to spread out and press flat against the bottom of the pan. Place in fridge for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake chilled crust on the middle rack at 350 degrees until golden, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare filling. In a medium-sized sauce pan, whisk together yolks and whole eggs. Add white sugar and whisk to combine. Add in citrus juice, zest and pinch of salt and whisk to combine. Place the saucepan on the stove, add in the cubed butter, and cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 7 minutes. (It will read 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, and have a thin sauce-like consistency.)
Pour mixture through a fine strainer set over a small mixing bowl or measuring cup to remove the zest and any cooked egg bits. Stir in heavy cream.
Pour the strained curd over still-warm shortbread crust and return to oven. Bake at 350 degrees until curd is set and only the center jiggles slightly when shaken, about 15 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, then place in fridge to chill. To serve bars, lift them up out of the pan by the foil sling, place on a cutting board, and cut into squares with a sharp knife, wiping the blade between slices. Enjoy!
Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated Lemon Bars.