Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Life Gives You Lemons....

Guadalajara, Mexico

For the two years that I lived in Honduras, I lamented the lack of lemons in my life. Yes, the grocery aisles and markets were over-flowing with perfectly round juicy LIMES. There were the ubiquitous varieties of limes I had never heard of- all of which I wishfully put to the test, hoping that there was a lemon substitute in the bunch. Not the case. It is subtle, but there are distinct differences in the flavors of a lemon and a lime. A lime is more astringent, but boasts a lower acidity whereas a lemon has the flowery citrus sweetness that I missed so much while living in Honduras.

Optimistic that Mexico would be different in the citrus realm, I eagerly searched the aisles upon my arrival. I should have known from past experience, gained while prepping and creating in restaurant kitchens, my pursuit would end in disappointment. I do not think a Latino compañero ever handed me the proper fruit, whether I asked for a lemon or a lime. Until I learned I had to specify limes and lemons by their color, there was always confusion. No, sadly, there are no lemons in Mexico; which means there is no lemon meringue pie, Caesar dressing, gremolata, hummus-- the tasty tart lemon-dependent items are endless.

I was not going to easily accept my "lemonless" fate. Life without lemons. Really? While living in the States, my kitchen was consistently stocked with lemons. A squeeze from this magical fruit is usually all that is needed to elevate a sauce, round out a soup, or start a dressing. Clearly a basic necessity to every culinary artillery. I interrogated the fruit and vegetable vendors at any and all markets, and yes, "yellow limes", as they are called here in Mexico, do grace the stalls-- but rarely. Noticing the great variety of citrus trees lining the streets of most neighborhoods, I deduced that there had to be a lemon tree among the bunch. And sure enough – there they were – holy goddess of acidic wonders! Lemon trees! Tons of them! For five blocks the center medium of a fairly busy street was lined with lemon trees, heavy as Sniff caring twins in her tenth month, the trees were loaded with this unappreciated, unwanted fruit, totally neglected, and falling all over themselves to deliver their precious fruit to me.

Like a tattered and starving wanderer emerging from the desert after months of eating and drinking sand, I sprinted towards the vision of bright yellow orbs bobbing among the foliage. As I picked the lemons, I got the strangest looks from people driving by in their cars-- perhaps, because I was leaping around screaming with ecstatic joy, perhaps, because these were the ugliest lemons on the planet. Bulbous warty things, which I later discovered have a very thick pith, but taste straight-up of lemons.

And when life gives you lemons… make lemon curd! Please do not be put off by the name, which unfortunately sounds like turd or curdle, conjuring up smells and sights that should not be found near a kitchen. Hmmm... lemon curd: to me it is the perfect pudding. Brits keep jars of it in their fridge and slather it on their toast in the morning. It is a luxurious filling for pies, tarts, cakes and cookies. I like to eat it with fresh berries, sometimes cutting it with a bit of whipped cream to make it fluffier and lighter in flavor, or simply naked, spoon to mouth. Tart, creamy, mouthwatering curd. The only unfortunate side effect of making lemon curd is, the lemons disappear faster than I can pick them. So, I keep a jar of preserved lemons in the fridge as well, and all is right with the world.

Sherry Yard’s Master Lemon Curd recipe is spot-on, and even more irresistible if you use Meyer lemons.

LEMON CURD – recipe taken from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard

2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped OR grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1. Prepare an ice bath using a large bowl to hold the ice. Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 full of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Combine sugar and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse until sugar is yellow and very fragrant, about 1 minute. The friction of the machine heats up the zest, releasing its oils into the sugar. (Alternatively, use a mortar and pestle or a small bowl and a fork to blend the two together.)

3. Combine the lemon sugar, eggs and egg yolks in a medium heatproof bowl and whisk together 30 seconds to distribute sugar evenly, which prevents premature coagulation. Place the bowl over the simmering water and immediately begin whisking. Whisk continuously for 15 seconds, or until sugar dissolves. To see if the sugar has dissolved, place a finger in the mixture. If you feel gains, continue to whisk.

4. Add lemon and lime juices and cook, whisking continuously, about 5 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of bowl from time to time. Insert a thermometer and check curd's temperature. The curd is done when it has the consistency of sour cream and a temperature of 160 degrees F. Rinse and dry the food processor, if using.

5. Transfer curd to the food processor or large bowl. Pulse while you add butter, piece by piece, or whisk it in by hand. Once all butter has been added, pulse or whisk for 10 seconds, or until texture is homogenous. Rinse and dry the heatproof bowl.6. Strain curd through a fine-mesh strainer back into the bowl and set in ice bath to cool. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto surface of curd to prevent a skin from forming. Stir curd occasionally until it has cooled completely. At this point, the curd can be used or refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.

NOTE: For a richer curd, increase butter to 1/4 pound (1 stick).

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