Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Sweetest Gift

Every winter there comes a day when I walk into the kitchen at my parents' house and see a large bag of Meyer lemons. "Arlene is back?" is always the first thing I ask my mom.

Arlene is a friend of my parents since way back before I was born, back before my parents were even married. Mom and Arlene worked together at the Rainier Brewery, but that's another story. Arlene spends part of every winter in Palm Springs and when she returns, she always brings with her some Meyer lemons from the tree at her house.

My childhood memories are filled with memories of women like Arlene. Women that love to cook & bake and shared that love of food with me. These friends joined our family for parties or holidays, were neighbors and often babysitters. Looking back now, I realize what an influence they've had at me.

Visits to Arlene's house held the promise of her homemade fruit leather. Being babysat by Sandra meant she'd bake cookies with me. Staying with my aunt Margita meant sweet, juicy, blackberry pie.

So back to the lemons. Meyer lemons are thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. They are still quite tart, but have a great flavor and are very juicy. I wanted to make something special with these seasonal treasures and got it in my head to make lemon curd.

I did some research and it seemed simple enough. Then I made the mistake of asking the chef/owner of a restaurant I was dining at last weekend and he put the fear of God in me. "Whisk like mad," he said. "Do you have a chinoise? No?! You'll have lumpy curd unless you strain it properly." Gah! I panicked.

But wait, I've made hollandaise, pastry creams and the like. I just needed to find the right recipe. I remembered seeing a recipe for lemon curd in a magazine awhile back and found an old issue of Fine Cooking with a much simpler recipe than anything else I'd read. Inexplicably, they have a more complex recipe on their website.

Simple Lemon Curd
Yields about 1 cup

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 oz (2 Tbsp) unsalted butter cut into 4-6 small pieces

Set a fine strainer over a medium bowl. In another medium bowl, whisk the lemon juice, sugar and eggs until thoroughly combines and most of the sugar has dissolved.

Pour the lemon mixture into a heavy-bottom stainless pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon until the curd is steaming (but not boiling) until thickened and registers 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 3-7 minutes.

Take the curd off the heat, add the butter and stir until the butter has melted. Pour the curd through the strainer to get rid of any lumps. Let cool. Will keep up to a week in the fridge.

In honor of Inauguration Day, I decided to make a special dessert with the lemon curd. The idea of little tartlets was stuck in my mind. They needed a little color, so I spent a King's ransom for some out-of-season raspberries.

These days, I have found myself surrounded by lots of little girls and like to think that my love of baking and cooking will rub off on them. 14 year-old Chloe was the first to arrive on the scene and we have baked chocolate chip cookies together since she was 4 or 5. She advanced quickly to cracking the eggs, then reading the recipe and today, I can just sit back and watch her make them all by herself.

Little Hazel, Marley, Lily and Makenna are almost old enough to join me in the kitchen. Most have already shown a fondness for sweets and treats and I always have something special for them when they are over at our house. The lemon curd was a little too tart for Marley, but she sure did like those raspberries.

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