Yesterday was one of those dimly lit days in Austin, with a light drizzle from dawn to dusk. And my Valentine’s Day tulips struggled to last the full week. I’m not complaining – we can certainly use any amount of wet in our streams and lakes, and I’ve been thrilled to have the tulips for however long they make it. We don’t get much winter here in Texas, so I’m always grateful for the days that offer an excuse to watch old movies or straighten up my office or just read a book. My husband watched a marathon of games on the soccer channel. To each his own.
Maybe the best thing about such days is that I can head to the kitchen and – without an ounce of guilt – root around for something new to cook. I checked the fridge contents for inspiration and realized that my Meyer lemons were nearing the same state as the tulips – looking a little peaked, as my Louisiana grandmother would have said. Must be time to make lemon curd.
I have a tiny Meyer lemon tree that squeaked out 11 yellow orbs this year – not bad for a plant its size. But my wonderful neighbor, Lynne, has two trees not much bigger than mine, and hers produced a bumper crop. I have to find out her secret. To manage her bounty, she squeezes a bunch and freezes it into ice cubes, giving her a source of fresh juice that lasts at least through spring; still, she had oodles left over, so she gave me some. What a good neighbor – better than State Farm any day if you ask me.
So, for the trivia lovers among you, Meyer lemons have been in the U.S. since the early 1900s, but weren’t “discovered” as a food until Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and – who else – Martha Stewart came along. Meyers are sweeter than “true” lemons – which are really just called lemons without any adjective – and were developed in China as a hybrid between lemons and some type of orange. Meyers also have a smoother, thinner skin than regular lemons, and if left on the tree for more than the 3-4 months they need for ripening, will actually turn orange. Lynne let me cut off two that she hadn’t bothered to harvest – imagine! – so here’s a photo of what you get if you leave them on the tree an extra month.
I have such a hard time bringing myself to do anything with these lemons – they’re so beautiful, with a fragrance that speaks of freshness without the heavy citrus scent of regular lemons. Sitting in a bowl in my kitchen, they’re a bit of still life art. But lemon curd is equally wonderful and almost as versatile as the lemons themselves, and for only a tiny bit of work.
If you don’t know about lemon curd, you are in for a total treat. A smooth, gelatinous, pudding-y substance that’s essentially lemon-lovers’ answer to peanut butter. It’s a spread, a filling, a topping – featuring a bright yellow color and a bright, sweet lemon taste. It keeps for a year if you freeze it, and a month if not. It’s not on any diet I know of, but in small quantities, what the heck....
So, first the recipe, then a few ideas for using it. Watch for the Meyer Lemon Curd Mousse at the end.
Meyer Lemon Curd
Adapted from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home
Yield: about 5 cups
1 cup Meyer lemon juice
6 large eggs
6 large egg yolks (save a few of the whites for the lemon curd mousse below)
1 cup sugar
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small chunks
Kitchen Goddess note: If you can’t find Meyer lemons, use regular lemons and increase the sugar to 1¼ cups. Under no circumstances should you use bottled lemon juice.
In a double boiler, or a large mixing bowl set over a pan of simmering water, whisk the lemon juice, eggs, yolks, and sugar together constantly for 5-6 minutes. Just when you think your arms won’t move the whisk around the pan for even a few more seconds, the mixture will come together into a pudding-like consistency.
Remove the mixture from the heat and whisk in the butter one small chunk at a time, allowing each piece to be completely incorporated before adding the next. Kitchen Goddess note: The Kitchen Goddess cleverly used her metal KitchenAid mixing bowl for the double-boiler whisking, so she was able to move the bowl to her mixer for whisking in the butter. The Kitchen Goddess is both lazy and clever.
Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the curd into a clean bowl to remove any bits of cooked egg. Some cooks – whose names I won't mention but you know who you are, Ina – add lemon zest and don’t strain the curd. If you don’t strain the curd, you can end up with tiny pieces of cooked egg in it – yuck. Moreover, I prefer the smoothness that comes from straining, and it’s such a light, lemony taste that I didn’t feel the need for zest. Speed the straining along by stirring against the mesh with a spatula.
If you will be using the curd within the next day, cover it with plastic wrap laid on the surface of the curd to keep a skin from forming and refrigerate. If not, store it in jars in the fridge or freeze it in plastic containers. The curd will firm up considerably as it cools. Give it a good stir to loosen it up again before using.
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And now for a few ways to use this delightful substance:
■ Instead of butter on a scone or pound cake
■ As a filling between layers in a cake
■ In a baked tart shell with fruit scattered on top
■ Swirled with plain yogurt for breakfast or with softened vanilla ice cream for dessert
■ As the basis for a lemon meringue pie
■ As the basis for Meyer Lemon Curd Mousse:
1. Whip ½ cup heavy cream, with ½ teaspoon vanilla, until stiff peaks form.
2. Gently fold ½ cup Meyer Lemon Curd into the whipped cream.
3. In a clean bowl, whip 2 large egg whites, with ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar, until soft peaks form. Add 4 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping until stiff, glossy peaks form.
4. Gently fold the whites into the whipped cream-curd mixture. Spoon into individual sherbet bowls and chill for 1-2 hours before serving.
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Finally, put some of the curd into a jar and take it to the generous friend who gave you the lemons. It'll brighten the day for both of you.