My Lemon Has a First Name, It’s M-E-Y-E-R

There are times when you just impulsively pick up ingredients with no plan whatsoever for how to use them, just because they are intriguing or exceptionally fresh and inviting.  At $20 each, I had already made the decision not to pick up the emu egg, and, feeling particularly good about myself for avoiding the temptation of that purchase, was completely blindsided by the sack of Meyer lemons.  At the bargain price of $1.99, it was a risk well worth taking.

We had taken an evening to go visit the stupefyingly immense Whole Foods that had recently opened in Plymouth Meeting, PA.  At 65,000 square feet, the store sits above a parking garage with enough room for 345 cars.  Pulling into the space, you feel as if you should be checking airline arrival and departure times, and the escalator ride up from the garage feels like an ascent into hippie heaven.

Back to the lemons.  I had heard of Meyer lemons, and had the occasion to sample them as an ingredient in some courses here and there, but never has a star component of any dish.  Having only seen them once in my local market years ago, I did not take the opportunity to try them at that time, mainly because they were considered to be such an exotic item that the price was a deterrent.  So, having run into them again, and at half the price, I just had to pick them up, plan or no.

The mesh bag of golden orbs sat on our kitchen counter for a few days as I looked for an appropriate way to inaugurate my taste buds to the wonders of the Meyer lemon.  There were, to be honest, many more applications than I could ever have hoped to find – Meyer lemon sorbets, granitas, and savory dishes.  Ultimately, I decided on a very straightforward pots de creme, which beckoned with its simplicity – just a mixture of one egg, egg yolks (4), sugar (2/3C), lemon juice (1/2C), cream (1.25C), and zest.  Whipped up in a single bowl, then baked in a water bath (425 degrees) for about a half hour, there seemed to be no more straightforward way to experiment with the fruit.

The Meyer lemons actually looked nothing like lemons at all.  Instead of bumpy skin, these lemons were smooth, and instead of being bright yellow, they trended more towards orange and, in truth, looked like tangerines.  Cutting into them yielded a lot of juice, and tasting it off of my fingers, I noted that Meyer lemons are sweeter and less tart than traditional lemons – think of a cross between lemon and tangerine.  Having zested the lemons and juiced them with a reamer, I was satisfied that I had extracted as much flavor out of each of them that I possibly could have.

The Meyer lemon pots de creme turned out to be a test of willpower.  After cooking, they needed to be cooled to room temperature, covered in plastic wrap, then chilled overnight.  But the next night, after a trying day at work and a challenging commute through the cold, dark early evening of January, there was no brighter end to the day than the spoonful of pure sunshine that the pot de creme provided.

January 28, 2010   Comments

The Big Finish

So, I had mentioned that I spent part of the morning on Friday making dessert. While I knew that one of our distinguished guests was bringing a homemade cake (completely from scratch), I also knew that, in said cake, there would be no chocolate. That was my in.

I decided to augment the dessert selection by making a chocolate pots de creme, which is really just a fancy way of saying “melted chocolate held together by egg yolks”. Really, it is.

At first, I had the hardest time finding which cookbook had held the recipe that I used earlier. I grabbed one book, but the pots de creme recipe didn’t look familiar (also, it called for a dozen egg yolks, and I’m fairly positive I would have remembered that). Finally, I grabbed my copy of Williams Sonoma Paris: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World, and found a recipe whose page was splattered with bits of chocolate and stained with cocoa. Pretty sure that was it.

So, here’s the magic formula, with the ingredients straight out of that book and the procedure based on the book but adjusted somewhat for my tastes:

Pots de Creme au Chocolat

1.5 C whole milk

1 C heavy cream

1 C powdered sugar

8oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger, 72% if I remember correctly), chopped up

2 T unsweetened cocoa

pinch of salt

1 large egg, whole, plus 6 egg yolks

1/2 t vanilla extract

These things are incredibly easy to make, which is probably why they are my go-to recipe for chocolate desserts. First things first, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Some preparatory steps – take eight 6oz or 8oz ramekins (they are cheap and widely available, about a buck and a half each if you shop around) and put them into an ovenproof dish that will fit them (a Corningware casserole is good for this). Take a saucepan of cold water and pour it into the dish until the water level reaches about a third of the way up each ramekin. Take out the ramekins and pour the water back into the saucepan. Set the saucepan of water aside, or pour the water into something that you can heat up in the microwave. As long as the water is hot when you put the dish into the oven, it doesn’t matter how it got that way.

You know what you just did? You just made the preliminary measurements for a bain marie, or water bath. It’s an important part of custard making – by cooking the custards, covered, in water, it maintains a nice, steady temperature which cooks them evenly. You’ve now measured the proper amount of water needed to cover the ramekins halfway (and before you quibble that I specified a third of the way – Archimedes Principle. That is all).

Onwards to the recipe. Take another saucepan and set it over medium heat, then throw your milk, cream, and sugar into it. Give that a good stir to dissolve the sugar, and heat it up until you see some simmering action going on along the edges. Turn the heat off.

Toss in your chopped chocolate, cocoa, and salt and stir until everything melts together. Turn the heat back on and heat until you see small bubbles at the edge, then turn the heat off again. Set this pot aside to cool for a bit while you go get the eggs.

In a large measuring cup (I mean large, like 8 cups or so) or large bowl, whisk the whole egg and the egg yolks together until blended. While stirring with one hand, ladle a little bit (like, half a ladle) of the warm chocolate mixture into the yolks, then a little more (you do it this way to avoid cooking the eggs with the hot chocolate – this brings the temperature of the eggs up slowly). Slowly incorporate the rest of the chocolate in a slow stream (don’t stop stirring). Add your vanilla.

At this point, the book suggests running the mix through a sieve. Seeing that I am lazy, and I don’t mind lumps in my food if they are lumps of chocolate, I generally skip this step.

Assembly. If you haven’t already, bring that reserved pot of water to a simmer, or microwave it in a microwave-safe thingy until it just boils. Either pour or ladle the chocolate mixture into the ramekins, then set the ramekins into the oven-safe dish (leave out one so you have a space to pour the hot water). Pour the hot water into the dish until the water level reaches the halfway mark of the ramekins, then put the last ramekin in. Cover the dish, either with a lid or with foil.

Carefully place the dish into the oven for 25 minutes. Take it out, uncover it, and with great care because you will most certainly burn yourself if you aren’t careful, remove the ramekins and place them on a kitchen towel to cool. When they have cooled to room temp, cover each one with plastic wrap and throw them into the fridge until you’re ready to attack them.

I just realized that the picture here has a sprig of rosemary sitting in the chocolate, and I haven’t mentioned it before. One thing about this recipe, once you get the hang of it, is that you can infuse the chocolate mixture with any number of other flavors, just by simmering an extra element (such as rosemary) in the milk-cream-sugar solution prior to adding the chocolate. Here, I chose rosemary, but you can also go with lavender or anything else you can imagine. Just pick out the flavoring element, or sieve it, before you add the chocolate.

The pots de creme ended up being the perfect counterpart to the strawberry cake that was brought to the party. The cake, which was so light it felt like a prop when I lifted it, was a white cake with fresh whipped cream, and strawberries in the shape of hearts (which is great, because I don’t shape my food often enough), was the exact opposite of the chocolate custards, which were very dark and very dense.

So, to keep things fair, I ate both.

Pictures of each, below:

May 1, 2008   Comments