Sunday, March 20, 2005

Springtime for Pie Queen

Well, happy spring, everyone. Crocuses were pushing up through the scruffy dirt in my neighbor's yard this morning, and the drugstores are filled with marshmallow Peeps in many colors insulting to nature.

Given the title of this blog, and my reputation as Food Girl (or Baking Chick), you, dear reader, may be wondering when I'm finally going to get around to talking about cooking, or when I'm going to get in the kitchen and bake a damn pie already.

So today's culinary adventure is lemon curd, made with the three Meyer lemons that I liberated from the tree next door to my old SF, during my recent trip back there. They've been sitting in the bottom of my fridge for the past month, earmarked for a jar of birthday lemon curd for my neighbor B.

Making lemon curd is a lot like making hollandaise sauce--a skill I acquired because my mother used to serve it with broccoli,asparagus and salmon all through my childhood. No one I know makes it anymore,but it's still divine, and since it's pretty much fat incarnate, you canserve it to those annoying carbphobes with a clear conscience. And once youhave the hollandaise thing down pat, you can whip up eggs Benedict without having to wait in line and pay $13.95 at your local overpriced brunch joint. Personally, not being a runny-egg-yolk person, I find eggs Benedict kind of disgusting, but for Christmas morning a few years ago, I did make the whole deal from scratch--poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, Canadian bacon (well, OK, actually that very handy fake soy Candian bacon) over toasted English muffins--and they were a big, big hit. Absolutely worth the time and butter on some lazy Sunday morning, especially if you've scored some nice wakeup sex beforehand.

But back to the lemon curd. Again, not my all-time fave thing, because of the gooey-egg aspect, but people who love it, really love it, especially B., who claims to have imbibed buckets of the stuff during his many ambles around the castles of Scotland. Supposedly, at one place, there's a little old lady who does nothing all day but make the shortbread and lemon curd for tea. I don't know why I feel competive about this, but I do.

There are lots of lemon curd recipes out there,but they're all slight variations on the same four-ingredient theme of lemons,butter, eggs, and sugar. The trick (as with hollandaise) is to cook the egg mixture very slowly over indirect heat (like a double boiler) so instead of sugary lemon-flavored scrambled eggs, you get a lush, smooth custard begging to be slathered on a scone or a piece of shortbread.

Monday morning I go to the greenmarket,which is sad and hunkered down in the rain, nothing for sale but cabbage and apples and plastic-wrapped muffins. The nice egg guy is there, though, with the little flip book of photos of his happy chickens running around and scratching in the dirt and grass, being all badass and cage-free. The egg guy at my friend Sharon's farmers' market doesn't sell his eggs in cartons; he just counts out the number of eggs you ask for and hands them to you in a paper bag stuffed with hay. Sharon puts her eggs and hay into a bowl in her fridge next to the raw milk and organic jam and homemade sasparilla and it looks like she lives on a farm in the 1940s, not in a cottage in Emeryville 10 minutes from a giant IKEA.

Back home in Brooklyn, I try to get in the mood for making lemon curd: I clean the little 12 x 12 square that counts as my kitchen counter; I wash the lemons;I get out my microplane zester and the fancy Straus organic butter. Back in my California days, I got to tour the Straus dairy, which is situated on a beautiful green chunk of peaceful Marin pasture and supports a herdof happy, grass-fed, organically-managed cows. In a time when more and more of Marin's dairy operations were shutting down, going organic and creating a niche product saved the Straus family farm. Their dairy products have always been wonderful, and now they've recently come out with a higher-butterfat, European-style butter. Yep, it's the butter you've been waiting for, now with more fat!

But this is not the day to take down the mythical little old Scottish lady. I stir and stir, and still I have a runny amber liquid instead of a nice creamy lemon-yellow mass. I add another egg yolk; I throw the whole mess into a heavy pot directly over the burner instead of in a double boiler. I cook and cook, and finally it begins to come together a little bit after almost an hour. The next morning, the chilled curd looks like leg wax and sticks to my teeth like gum. It actually tastes OK, but the texture is completely weird. Damn.

Luckily, there are still eggs left, and a couple more lemons and some butter. In my pajamas, coffee in one hand, I go for the big guns: Claudia Fleming's 6-egg version, from her fancy dessert cookbook The Last Course, one of those really restauranty books that gives recipes for things no one ever wants to eat at home, like rhubarb soup and licorice ice cream topped with pistachio-cardamom brittle. Still, she's very famous. Presumably she knows how to make decent lemon curd.

So,3 egg yolks, 3 whole eggs, beaten with 1/2 cup sugar and a pinch of salt,then mixed with a scant 1/2 cup of lemon juice (1 Meyer lemon, 1 regular lemon) and the zest of same. In a double boiler, it looks happy and crayon-yellowand thickens in exactly 10 minutes, just as the recipe says. Off heat, beat in 4 tablespoons of butter (you could use more, presumably), then strain it to get out any random bits of clotted egg. It doesn't make much--a little less than 2 smallish jars. But it's delicious, especially on a triangle of homemade shortbread, another excellent butter-delivery system. Beat 1 stickof butter until soft with 1/4 cup confectioner's (powdered) sugar and 1/2 tsp. vanilla. With a wooden spoon, mix in 1 cup flour and a couple generous pinches of salt until it forms a soft dough. Pat the dough into a flat roundon a sheet of parchment paper or buttered foil. Poke the round all over with a fork, and press the tines of the fork down all around the edges of the round, as if you're marking a pie crust. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly golden. Cut into triangles while warm.

Music for Baking:
1. Five Variations on Dives and Lazarus (Ralph Vaughn Williams)
2. I'm Old Fashioned (Ella Fitzgerald)
3. Gettin' Dirty Just Shakin' That Thing (Romeo Nelson)
4. Put A Lid On It (Squirrel Nut Zippers)
5. Can't You Hear Me Calling (Country Gentlemen)

P.S. Ok, extra points and a jar of homemade jam to anyone who can identify the South Park quote embedded in the above, especially if you can tell me who said it, and why.


Shifra said...

Oh, stephanie, how I miss you. who else could make me guffaw and bellow with laughter writing about recipes? you rock so hard.

Sending you dizzily happy hugs from across the country.

Anonymous said...

Oh how fun that you have a blog! And how open-minded of you to think of doing anything else with a lemon other than putting it on fish, in hummus or in your perfume :). Love, Susie