Friday, January 16, 2009

the golden trumpets of sunshine

Winter break is over, classes have resumed, the streets of Boston are icy death traps, and the weather is gloomy and grey. I have mountains of reading and no desire to get out of bed in the mornings. We have officially settled into January slump.

Lemon season is my consolation. The stalls at Haymarket are piled high with the yellow fruit, bright like beacons in the flat light. There are lemons to cut into wedges for tea with honey. Lemons to zest to add contrast to fish. And lemons to juice for lemon curd.

There is nothing like lemon curd to brighten a grey winter afternoon. Yellow lemons and yellow yolks, with sugar to sweeten, whisked together over heat until rich and luscious. Warmth and light, like absent sunshine. Like the memory of summer, captured in a bowl.

Spoon it onto scones. Spread it on toast. Or pour it into a crumbly shortbread shell, and bake until set.

A slice of lemon tart goes a long way towards curing January slump.

Lemon Tart

The curd for this tart uses a sabayon method, which I think I may have nicked from Thomas Keller. The whisking is tiring, but the results are particularly light and airy.

(Recipe not for one, unless you're in dire need of consolation.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

For the tart shell, take a stick of softened butter, and use a fork to cream it in a mixing bowl with a quarter-cup of sugar and a half-teaspoon of salt. Add one cup of flour to the butter and sugar little by little, gently mixing with the fork. Once all the flour has been incorporated, gather the dough into a ball and place it in an eight-inch metal pie or tart pan. (Don't use Pyrex. No matter how much you grease Pyrex, this tart will end up sticking.)

Gently flatten out the dough until it covers the pan evenly. Prick all over lightly with a fork, and bake in the oven for twenty to twenty-five minutes, just until the very edges are golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

For the lemon curd, get out a large heatproof mixing bowl, and crack in two eggs and two egg yolks. Add three-quarters of a cup of sugar, and beat together with a big balloon whisk until you have a gritty yellow mixture. Set aside.

Squeeze three or four large lemons, and measure out a half-cup of the juice. Set aside.

Take a medium saucepan and fill it with an inch or so of water. Set it on the stove over medium heat. Once the water in the saucepan has reached a steady simmer, turn the heat down to low. Set the mixing bowl over the saucepan and whisk the egg-sugar mixture until the sugar dissolves. Pour in the lemon juice little by little. Continue to whisk.

Keep whisking. If you, like me, have never mastered correct whisking technique (from the wrist, not the shoulder), your arm will eventually start to cramp. Switch arms. Keep whisking.
You will whisk for a very long time while it looks as though absolutely nothing is happening.

When the change comes, it will happen quickly. The mixture will turn paler and start to thicken. Keep whisking until it gets really thick, like mayonnaise, and the whisk starts to leave noticeable marks.

Remove the bowl from heat. Turn off the stove.

Spoon the mixture into the cooled tart shell and shake the pan gently to smooth out the top. Put the tart in the oven and bake for five to ten minutes, or until the filling puffs up very slightly. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Chill for at least an hour before serving.

Lemon tart goes well with whipped cream and lemon zest macerated in limoncello.

Note: Any leftover curd goes well on toast or scones, assuming you don't eat it straight out of the bowl with a spoon.

Literary Extra

I'm clearly not the first to figure out that lemons make winter more bearable, nor am I the first to write about it. One of my favorite poems is Eugenio Montale's "I Limoni," a poem that is beautifully evocative of both the light of summer and the grey of winter. The following is my translation, but you can find the original Italian here.

The Lemons

Listen to me. The poets laureate
move only amongst plants

with seldom used names: box-tree, privet, acanthus.

I, myself, love the ways that wend through grassy
ditches where in shallow pools,
half-dried, the children seize
struggling eels;
the paths that follow the river banks,
descending through the tufts of cane
and winding past the nettles, amongst the lemon trees.

All the better if the din of the birds
is swallowed up by the azure:
clearer, the friendly murmuring
of branches in the almost-still air
and the sense of this fragrance
which does not know how to part from the earth
and rains upon the breast an uncertain sweetness.
Here the war of diverse passions
is by some miracle hushed,
here we poor souls receive our share of wealth,
the fragrance of the lemons.

You see, in these silences in which things
abandon themselves and seem close
to revealing their ultimate secrets,
sometimes one expects
to discover in them a mistake of Nature,
the standstill of the world, the ring that does not hold,
a thread to untangle that finally leads
to the heart of a truth.
The searching glance around,
the mind wonders accords divides
in the perfume that disperses
when the day is at its fading.
These are silences in which one sees
in each human shadow that drifts away
some disturbed Divinity.

But the illusion is lacking and here returns time
in the noisy cities where the azure shows itself
only in fragments, on high, through the rooftops.
The rain wearies the earth, and then
the wretched winter settles upon the houses,
the light fades – bitter, the soul.
When one day through a gate ajar
amongst the trees of a courtyard
are glimpsed the yellow hues of the lemons;
and the heart sheds its ice,
and in the breast blasts
their fanfare,
the golden trumpets of sunshine.


~~louise~~ said...

Puckering, puckering, puckering, I LOVE Lemon Tart especially in the cold, bleak hours of winter. Thanks for sharing Adele. BTW, do you know who invented the lemon squeezer? I posted about it here.

The literary garnish is a wonderful touch...

Family Nutritionist said...

And now for something completely different -- I followed you here from Food on the Food, because you seem to know what searches bring users to your blog. How do you do it?

adele said...

Family Nutritionist - You need a tracker, like StatCounter. It's free.

Cakelaw said...

I adore lemon tart! How can one be grey and sad with this in the house? I also love the poem - thanks.

adele said...

Cakelaw - Montale's poetry is beautiful, isn't it?

JacquelineC said...

Oh lemons. The Meyers especially. I complain but really, I love them. I love the poem, too. Great to meet you tonight!

adele said...

JacquelineC - It's one of my favorite poems. I want to believe that Montale liked to cook. :)

It was great to meet you too!

Kelly said...

Awesome, and so light and sunshiny! I especially liked the poem alongside it.

I've only made one lemon tart (actually a lemon and lime one), and we spent so much time squeezing and zesting the fruit that our hands smelled of citrus for what seemed like days. I think we overdid it; the tart was a tad too puckery...but still delightful, and even mellower from its sojourn in the fridge.

adele said...

Kelly - I am determined to introduce people to Montale. I'm glad it's working!

If you overdo the citrus in lemon tart, it can be counteracted by applying a snowstorm of powdered sugar. :)