I was 15 when my parents sent me and my big sister off to France to stay with some relatives for the summer. Were our French hosts happy to see us? In retrospect, I am not so sure. They put on a good face, however, and Elisa and I, being teenagers — American ones at that — were fairly oblivious to our impact on other people’s lives.
For the first week or so after we arrived, our relatives were preoccupied: The mother was a teacher, the daughter a student, their school year not yet over. Elisa and I woke up each morning to an empty house, and, after sniggering over French plumbing (the toilet tank high on the wall that flushed with a pull-chain, the baffling bidet, the soi-disant douche), we tumbled downstairs to find a baguette, butter, a few jars of preserves, and a carafe of café au lait on the tiny, enameled kitchen table.
“I guess this is their idea of breakfast,” my sister said on the first morning, after we’d searched the cabinets for a box of cereal and the icebox for milk.
Yet my sense of strangeness gave way to bright wonder when we sat down to eat and I opened one of the jars to discover lemon curd inside. Silky and yellow as a farm egg yolk, it glowed in the morning sunshine. I smeared it on a chunk of baguette and took a bite. It tasted like lemon meringue pie, if lemon meringue pie were made from lemons grown by nymphs on Mount Olympus, and if its crust shattered into delicate shards when you bit into it.
Wow, I remember thinking, you’re allowed to eat this for breakfast in France? Never mind that, until that moment, I’d considered Honeycomb and Lucky Charms legitimate ways to start the day. For the rest of that summer, I had lemon curd for breakfast nearly every morning.
Later, back in the States, I persuaded my mother to buy a jar of it at the gourmet market downtown, but it was a far cry from the French ones. Since then, I’ve tried a few commercial lemon curds with similar results. I suspect this is why: a lemon’s juice will retain its sourness over time, but everything else that makes the fruit’s flavor compelling is fragile and ephemeral — and is due mostly to oils and esters in the skin and pulp. Fresh, homemade curd is the only way to go.
I didn’t discover this until I was in my 20s and chanced upon a spectacular recipe for lime (and/or lemon) mousse in The Silver Palate Cookbook. For a couple of years, it was pretty much the only thing I served for dessert, apart from brownies. To make it, you start by cooking up a somewhat loose curd, then fold it into whipped cream. As so often happens with lemon desserts, people used to ooh and ahh over how “light” it was, despite the fact its main ingredients were butter, eggs, sugar and cream.
Looking back, I’m surprised to recall how intense my two youthful lemon crushes were. Because after my friends and I grew sick of the mousse, I moved on, all but erasing lemon sweets from my life. In the years since, I have never requested a lemon cake for my birthday, nor do I ever select the lemon option from a dessert menu. And sure, I love a lemon bar, but only sometimes.
But hey, it’s the season when long-dormant things come back to life. And so for the next few weeks, I’ll wake up into the lemony April sunshine, admire the butter-yellow daffodils, thank good chickens everywhere for their marvelous eggs, then tumble downstairs to a beaming jar of lemon curd that I will mix into my yogurt or spread on my toast.
- 3 lemons and 3 limes, or enough to yield ¼ cup zest and ½ cup juice
- 1¼ cups sugar
- 1 stick butter
- 5 large eggs
- Pinch salt
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest the lemons and limes, and measure out ¼ cup. Transfer to a blender along with ½ cup of the sugar. Blend until the zest is pulverized and the sugar almost powdery. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs and remaining ¾ cup sugar. Using an electric mixer or whisk, whisk until thick and pale, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Cut and squeeze the zested lemons and limes, and measure out ½ cup of the resulting juice. Set aside.
Fill a sink or large skillet with a couple inches of cold water. Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler, or in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of boiling water (make sure the bottom of the bowl is not submerged in the water). Whisk in the sugar-egg yolk mixture. Continue to heat, mixing constantly, until the mixture is thick and custardy and beginning to look translucent, about 10 minutes. Do not allow to overheat or the eggs will scramble. Immediately set the bottom of the bowl in the sink of cold water to stop the cooking. Blend in the lemon-lime juice, the sugar-zest mixture, pinch of salt and vanilla.
Transfer to jars and refrigerate; curd will keep in the refrigerator for roughly 10 days.
Note: To make mousse, blend 3 tablespoons of lemon and/or lime juice into the curd. Whip a pint of heavy cream until thick, then fold into the curd. Scoop into serving glasses and refrigerate until cool.