What would you do with forty limes?
A question I'm sure most of you will not have given much thought to. I admit it isn't something that had ever crossed my mind before (although I was in the enviable position a couple of years ago of speculating the uses for twenty mangoes). I tend to have, at most, five limes in the fridge at any one time. I use them a lot more frequently now than I used to, having fallen in love with south east Asian food during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last year, and it's rare that a lime doesn't get squeezed over most of my meals prior to eating.
I love the fragrant zing of a fresh lime, that beautiful perfume that emanates as you scrape the flesh with a grater or squeeze the skin between your fingers. Limes have a magic about them that lemons just don't possess for me; maybe it's their association with more exotic climes, and more exotic cuisines. They seem to have fragrance as well as sourness. I also think their colouring is far more beautiful than that of lemons, particularly when you find a ripening specimen that is mottled, blushing yellow, promising bountiful juice within.
Although, as I write this, I wonder if that 'fragrance' I keep attributing to limes in my mind is more to do with the fact that one of my favourite ways to have limes is sitting in a glass of gin. Hmm.
I use limes in many ways in my kitchen. Their juice gets squeezed over a Thai curry, along with a scattering of fresh basil and coriander, just before eating, where it lifts all the flavours and makes everything riot. It also gets sprinkled over a bowl of fresh papaya, one of my absolute favourite breakfasts. Like rhubarb and ginger or apple and cinnamon, lime and papaya for me have a deep affinity that is almost primal. There's something gorgeous about the contrasting colours as you mingle the two - that beautiful vibrant green against the deep orange flesh of a succulent papaya.
Lime juice also makes an excellent addition to salad dressings, when you want a really zingy snap of freshness. This works particularly well in salads of the Asian variety, mixed with a little fish sauce for the salty element, chilli for heat, and brown sugar for sweetness. However, it's also a good substitute for lemon juice in any other salad dressing, particularly delicious mixed with olive oil and mustard and used to dress wafer-thin sliced fennel.
I also enjoy the zest of limes scattered over desserts for a snap of freshness; it's surprisingly delicious sprinkled over peaches baked with ginger and brown sugar. The zest adds a richer, more fragrant note than the juice, so is lovely in curry pastes or cakes. The smell as you rasp a grater over the glossy skin of a fresh lime is so, so utterly worth the labour-intensive nature of the task, or any scraped knuckles.
In fact, there's very little that isn't improved by limes. I remember in Vietnam they were served with almost every meal. The limes over there are gorgeously tiny, about the size of a ping-pong ball, and are delicious squeezed over everything from fruit to noodle soup. The juice mixed with a little salt makes a fabulous dipping sauce for fresh seafood. Limes, to me, have the same culinary use as salt: they sharpen and bring out the flavours of whatever you choose to mingle them with, often negating the need for any salt at all.
The other week, I was sent a basket of Brazilian limes. These are seedless limes with thinner skins than your average, so they are plumper and juicier. I was expecting a sample of maybe ten limes, at the most, so when I unwrapped my hamper of around forty, beautifully arranged and wrapped in cellophane, I admit I did wonder how I was going to use them all (OK, I lie. All I did was glance up at my cupboard where a bottle of Bombay Sapphire was winking enticingly at me).
However, in the interests of not promoting alcoholism on this blog, and because I much prefer ingesting calories that I can chew on, I decided to take advantage of my bountiful lime supply to experiment with a few recipes. First on the list was a cheesecake, inspired by one I ate a few weeks ago in a Malaysian restaurant and have been dying to recreate ever since. I was captivated by its fabulous combination of lime, lemongrass, coconut and ginger.
If the knee-jerk partners for apples are nuts, raisins and cinnamon, or for bananas brown sugar, maple syrup, chocolate and pecan nuts, those for limes surely have to be coconut, ginger and lemongrass. I like to think of food in 'semantic fields' like this; a literature term but one I think is highly relevant to gastronomy. Certain ingredients just cry out to be paired with other ingredients with which they have a certain affinity, often because they share a climate or region. This is the case with limes: lime, lemongrass, coconut and ginger are the basic component of many south east Asian curries and stir-fries.
In fact, when one of my friends tried a piece of this cheesecake, her first reaction was 'This tastes like Thai food. In a dessert.'
Which is exactly what I was aiming for.
This is a baked cheesecake, because I wanted a properly dense, creamy texture to stand up to all the assertive flavours in there. It has a beautiful crisp ginger biscuit base. I never buy cheesecakes, always preferring to make my own for one simple reason: you can have as thick a biscuit base as you like. As it's the best part, I generally think a ratio of 1:1, base to cheesecake, is a good idea. This cake puts that into practice (however, if you want more filling, I've included instructions in the recipe to adapt it).
The cheesecake filling, lightened with ricotta rather than cream cheese, is permeated by shards of lemongrass, blitzed finely in a blender but still possessing a little crunch, and chunks of syrupy stem ginger that bring heat and sweetness. There's the mellow, creamy flavour of coconut running through the filling, and flakes of toasted coconut on top. It's a riot of beautiful zingy flavours, mellowed by the comforting sweetness of the coconut.
For the topping, I decided to be a bit fancy and make some candied limes. This basically involves simmering lime slices in sugar syrup until they soften and become sweet rather than sour. The peel still stays quite tough, but they make a lovely sharp contrast to the rich, dense cheese filling. Plus I think they look beautiful. You can make a batch of these and keep them in the fridge or freezer to decorate other types of cake.
While some cheesecakes can be cloyingly rich, this is the opposite. It takes everything that is fresh, vibrant and healthy about Asian food and transforms it into a dessert that possesses all those qualities. There's the fiery heat of ginger, the fragrance of lime zest and lemongrass, and, underlying it all, the delicious sweet creaminess of coconut. Add to that the crunch of a sweet-tart candied lime and flakes of sweet, nutty, rich coconut, and you have something that I think is pretty special.
I should add a disclaimer here: this is not the answer to 'how to use up forty limes', as it only uses four. But it's so nice that you probably should make ten, and then you'll have used them all up. Voila.
Lime, lemongrass, ginger and coconut cheesecake (serves 8):
If you want more filling compared to the amount of base, just multiply the asterisked ingredients by 1.5 (for example, you'd use 375g ricotta cheese, 300ml creme fraiche, etc)
16 ginger nut biscuits
60g butter, plus extra for greasing
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, roughly chopped*
250g ricotta cheese*
200ml half-fat creme fraiche*
90g caster sugar*
2 large eggs*
1 tbsp runny honey*
1 tsp coconut essence (use vanilla if you can't find this)*
Zest of 4 limes*
3 globes stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped*
2-3 tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted in a dry pan
For the candied limes:
240ml water, plus extra for blanching the limes
2 limes, very thinly sliced
[I would recommend making the candied limes - see below - the day before you want to decorate the cheesecake]
First, make the biscuit base. Pre-heat the oven to 180C, and place an oven dish or tray on the bottom shelf. Blitz the ginger nut biscuits in a blender until fine crumbs. Melt the butter in a saucepan or in a bowl in the microwave, then stir the biscuits into it. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin with a circle of baking parchment, then press the biscuits into an even layer on the bottom of it. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes then remove and leave to cool. Once cool, grease the inside of the cake tin. Lower the oven temperature to 160C.
Meanwhile, clean out the blender. Put the lemongrass in it and blitz until very finely chopped. Add the ricotta cheese, creme fraiche, sugar, eggs, honey, coconut essence and lime zest, then blitz again briefly to combine all the ingredients. Stir in the stem ginger (don't process it as this will chop it too finely). Pour the cheesecake mix over the base, then cover the tin with foil. Have a jug of cold water ready. Put the cheesecake into the oven, then quickly pour the water into the tray on the bottom, to create steam. Close the door quickly. Bake the cheesecake for 45-55 minutes, or until set with only a slight wobble (peel back the foil to have a look). Leave to cool.
For the candied limes, blanch the lime slices in boiling water for 3 minutes, then drain. Bring the 240ml water and 225g sugar to the boil in a saucepan, then add the lime slices and simmer gently for around 45 minutes, until the rind has softened. Remove from the syrup and leave to cool and dry out on a sheet of greaseproof paper, preferably overnight. You can keep the lime syrup to drizzle over the cheesecake while serving, if you like.
Remove the cake from its tin and put on a plate. Decorate with the lime slices and toasted coconut, then refrigerate. Remove from the fridge around 30 minutes before serving.