Apparently I was born without the chocolate gene. If anyone is promising decadence for dessert, I would prefer death by citrus.
Lemon or lime will do, as long as it comes in an absurdly rich and buttery form, preferably with a name that is nowhere near as seductive as its taste and texture. I’m talking curd, or lemon cheese as it’s known in its birthplace of England, but what I mean is closer to a pudding than a dairy product. And it is so much more versatile than mere chocolate mousse that you can only wonder why it has largely fallen off the American culinary map.
Lemon curd has the intensity of a serious truffle, the richness of dark chocolate ice cream and the over-the-top butteriness of a molten chocolate cake. But it also has complexity, a jazzy interplay of tart and sweet. The second mouthful of this cross between a sauce and a pudding is more interesting than the first, in a way it rarely is for me with chocolate.
Lemon curd is not something to enjoy all by itself, though. As tempting as it is to eat a whole panful as it cooks, it gets even better when you spoon it into tartlets with the first spring berries, or layer it into a cake, or simply spread it on a just-baked scone. And while it’s usually a finishing touch, it can also be baked into cakes and cookies, especially bars that put the usual lemon squares to weepy shame.
I made this teatime staple while reviewing a “cookery” book from Harrods in London years ago and have been addicted to it since, not least because it’s embarrassingly easy to make.
All it needs is four ingredients -- lemons, sugar, butter and eggs -- and 15 minutes of stirring and cooking. Do it in a double boiler and it’s virtually foolproof.
What they’re missing
Lemon curd is not on many cookbook writers’ radar these days, especially now that “lemon” seems to be followed by “preserved” in far too many recipe indexes. Its origins are also a little murky.
“The Oxford Companion to Food” just says it is the archetype of “a kind of fruit preserve,” which is sort of like describing ice cream as a frozen dessert. No one today would make it as a way of preserving lemons, and even if you did you would be looking at only a two-month shelf life, in the refrigerator.
In the South, lemon curd seems to have been a standby for generations, although it has always gone by softer, gentler aliases like lemon jelly. It’s the filling in Lee Cake, for instance, a dessert named after the general that basically comprises a sponge cake with a tangy center and a lemon-orange frosting. But middle American cookbooks have tended to give it short shrift.
Cookbooks these days that do include lemon curd have varying notions of what the perfect formula is, and so I’ve worked out my own.
The amount of juice is free form -- most recipes specify a number of lemons rather than a liquid measurement -- but the proportion of butter and eggs makes a difference. Less of both produces a better balance, and a stronger sense of lemon. I also like less sugar than most recipes recommend. The minimum I’ve been able to get away with is three-quarters of a cup to two lemons.
Curd is most commonly made with lemons, but lime is even better, and a combination of the two is best of all. Tangerines or oranges can also be used, but they’re a little too sweet for my taste. Meyer lemons and blood oranges are worth trying, though. The tartness against the buttery undertones is what makes curd so irresistible.
Whatever the fruit, the oil in the peel accounts for much of the flavor. And making curd has gotten much easier since I invested in a Microplane, which takes off just the colored part of the zest, and none of my knuckles. To get the most juice to go with the zest, a reamer is more effective than a juicer.
As for the actual cooking, it’s as simple as whisking all the ingredients together in the top of a double boiler, or in a stainless-steel bowl set over simmering water, and then just stirring with a wooden spoon until a custard forms that is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. It won’t curdle unless you have the heat too high, or stir too erratically, but even if the eggs start to scramble you can push the curd through a sieve and still get a thick and smooth result (if slightly less of it).
Lemon curd can be lightened with whipped cream if you just want an easy sauce for fresh fruit or a slice of angel food or pound cake. If you fold in about an equal part whipped cream, you’ll get a fool, like a soft mousse, that should be served immediately. Or, for a more dramatic dessert, you can fold whipped egg whites into the curd and spoon the fluffiness over sliced strawberries or other fruit in a gratin dish, then run it under the broiler.
I never thought to bake lemon curd until I discovered a great recipe for an almond cake in a cookbook by Jody Adams of Rialto in Boston called, “In the Hands of a Chef.” The curd was the filling in what was really a variation on a tart, and it set up beautifully.
When I tried it in lemon bars with a crunchy pecan shortbread crust, it was a revelation. Usually when I make lemon squares with uncooked lemon and eggs I get soup. Curd not only held together but produced something decadent, bordering on lethal.