I think I would consider lemon tart to be the most dangerous dessert. Not dangerous in the way of Japanese fugu or anything, I’m not claiming that it will kill you if incorrectly prepared, but dangerous in that capable-of-completely-abolishing-all-willpower sort of way. There’s something about the irresistible mix of buttery pastry, silky custard, and the snap of lemon that seems to prevent you reaching that overload threshold you get with other desserts. Because it has a welcome acidity from lemons, you can just keep on going without feeling yourself slip into a sugar coma. Until you do, of course, slip into a sugar coma, one that has crept up on you like some kind of saccharine ninja and left you defenceless.Read More
As food geeks, we all have a few ‘fun facts’ up our sleeve, right? Random snippets of foodie info that we use to pepper the conversations at parties or liven up a boring first date? Don’t tell me you’ve never reached for a bit of asparagus-related trivia to brighten up a dull moment, or quietened a room by pointing out that red Skittles are coloured with smushed-up insects. If you haven’t, I’m certainly never going to a party with you.Read More
I was distinctly unimpressed by my first ever sip of true, authentic Indian chai. In fact, I’d say my reaction bordered on revulsion. As someone whose journey in tea drinking had progressed from milky teenage cups of builder’s tea, through to Earl Grey with a slice of lemon, through to all sorts of exotic, loose leaf brews from the corner of the globe drunk strictly unadulterated – heaven forbid milk or sugar should make it anywhere near the teapot – I was unprepared for the assault on my tastebuds mounted by my first real chai, sipped in the ferocious sun atop a roof terrace in Delhi.Read More
My tea habits have become somewhat noteworthy in an office consisting, almost entirely, of die-hard coffee drinkers (many of whom have special mugs/signs on their office doors professing their ardent affection for the stuff). Multiple times a day I stand patiently by the sink waiting for the kettle to boil, carefully decanting fragrant leaves into a flower-shaped Fortnum & Mason strainer which I then place in a mug with the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Drink Tea’. During this precious ritual, one of my colleagues will bustle in, pick up the pot of filter coffee that is always kept topped up on standby, slosh it into a mug and rush out again to deal with whatever demands university life has placed on them that day. I think they think I’m a bit mad, especially because the office has a large collection of various teabag teas, which I ostentatiously shun in favour of my fancy loose leaves. When the office kettle broke, I clamoured for one of those hi-tech models that allow you to set the exact temperature for different types of tea (only a philistine would consider brewing green tea at anything above 79 celsius, after all). Needless to say, my wish was not granted. Denmark is very much a coffee country.Read More
I often find it odd that Earl Grey is an almost ubiquitous beverage, whose tell-tale floral perfume scents teacups the world over, and yet its key ingredient, the bergamot, is a rare specimen whose glowing presence amidst the jumbled crates of a farmers market stall is guaranteed to send serious food-lovers into paroxysms of excitement (and, subsequently, to lead to heightened activity on Instagram as we first show off our esoteric citrus haul and, not long after, start crowdsourcing suggestions on what on earth to do with this highly underrated and underused knobbly lemon thing). Earl Grey is available in myriad forms, from high-class zesty loose leaves for infusing in china teapots to the tannic dust likely to fill your cup in a greasy spoon café or on an aeroplane meal tray. That the actual source of these plentiful, cosmopolitan cuppas remains elusive is one of the strange realities of our modern food supply system.Read More
Whenever I read about someone enjoying their porridge plain, ‘with just water and salt’, a small part of me withers and dies quietly inside. It is often, apparently, meant to seem like a badge of honour (specifically, a sort of Spartan-cum-Northern honour): look how I shun the decadent trappings of modern culinary life in favour of my abstemious bowlful of gruel; look how little I require to achieve true happiness. While I am undoubtedly envious – imagine how much simpler one’s entire existence must be if one is sated by just oats and salt – I can’t help but think of all the opportunities that are closed down by that Puritan preference for a no-nonsense breakfast bowl.Read More
When I was seventeen, I worked in the kind of restaurant that I was far too much of a food philistine to appreciate. Why would a fussy teenager who lived off a diet of McDonalds super-size happy meals, cheese sandwiches and fish fingers care about organic food that was lovingly sourced from within a fifty-mile radius, with an emphasis on seasonality, ‘from-scratch’ cooking and unusual flavour combinations? Not for my anaemic adolescent palate the delights of duck liver and raisin pâté, pickled fennel, greengage pavlova or Moroccan lamb and preserved lemon tagine. Pass the chicken nuggets.Read More
What can you tell about a person from the contents of their kitchen cupboards? When I was filmed for a cookery programme several years ago, the camera crew made me reveal, on film, the contents of my larder to prove that I was not your average student when it came to culinary ingenuity. ‘No pot noodles in my cupboard!’ they wanted me to declare with an impish grin, gesturing instead to the bottles of raspberry-infused balsamic vinegar, bergamot olive oil, buckwheat flour and dried edible rose petals. I refused, unwilling to abandon completely my dignity on national television, but they did have a point. You can infer a lot about a cook from rifling through their cupboards, whether they are of the Ottolenghi school of thought (giveaways: jars of za’atar and sumac, and wooden spoons forever tipped with purple stains from bashing out pomegranate seeds over every meal), the Nigella (fridge full of butter, double cream and bacon, mandatory carbonara-eating negligee draped over a chair), the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (weird offal in the fridge and boxes of home-cured meats lying around in various stages of fermentation), or an ardent follower of the Clean Eating brigade (chia seeds, bee pollen, cacao powder, a frankly alarming and small mortgage-worthy quantity of Medjool dates). Or, of course, an indifferent, fairweather cook (large quantities of pasta in various shapes and sizes, lots of canned sauces, a jar of 'all-purpose seasoning').Read More
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So the saying goes. What about when life gives you one of the strongest El Niños on record, floods the city in which you live and numerous others across your country, veils the sun in a shroud of grey fug so thick that it takes three months to emerge again, smothers your house in a perpetual coat of damp that sees a bloom of bright algae spread like a butterfly across your kitchen window, has you hiding under your duvet for a good forty-five minutes every morning willing the sun to rise properly, none of this pallid half-light please, and bestows upon you a case of seasonal affective disorder so violent that no number of light boxes, sunrise clocks, daytime walks or Vitamin D pills can encourage it to dissipate and leave you feeling like a normal human being again?Read More
Last week I took the daring step of taking all the half-opened bottles of red wine out of my wine rack. There were seven. It's probably a good thing wine doesn't have a sell-by date on it, which would give me some indication of when those bottles were last opened and drunk from, because I'd probably be horrified by the length of time they'd been languishing. I'm not the biggest fan of red wine, nor do I cook a lot of heavy casserole-type recipes that involve stewing a piece of animal bathed in it, so wine brought by dinner guests tends to have a fairly extended shelf life in my kitchen. Seven bottles, though, is verging on ridiculous and they were taking up valuable space in the wine rack that I wanted to fill with gin. Naturally.Read More
A fabulous combination of soft, comforting noodles bound together with an incredibly complex sweet-sour-citrus dressing, brimming with the tang of lime and the fiery rasp of fresh galangal and the richness of soy, brown sugar and tamarind. There are bright, moreish edamame beans for crunch, chilli for heat, and then the rich, sweet taste of fresh crab meat, all topped off with chunks of sweet pomelo and toasted sesame seeds. I’ve essentially thrown all my favourite far-Eastern flavours into a pan with some noodles and some crab, and it emerged as something far more than the sum of its parts. It’s very loosely based on an incredible dish of glass noodles with crab and garlic that I ate in Vietnam, but with an added arsenal of punchy flavours that magically work beautifully together: the sweet pomelo and yuzu brighten up the rich crab, while the toasted seeds and edamame beans add earthy depth and texture. Go visit the AO at Home blog for the recipe!
So often cheesecakes can be overly sugary, overly creamy and just a little bit much. This version might make you rethink your conception of a cheesecake. There's no biscuit base, but instead there's a beautifully light and fluffy ricotta filling, studded with all the flavours of Sicilian desserts: sherry-soaked raisins, emerald pistachios, vibrant candied peel and citrus zest. On top, a gorgeous burst of blood orange colour and a scattering of more pistachios. It's light, fresh, fluffy and really very good. For the recipe, head over to my latest post for the Appliances Online lifestyle blog, here!
Until recently, my only experience of lime leaves was of the dried variety, that come crammed into little spice boxes in major supermarkets, often with a hefty price tag attached for the privilege of acquiring the exoticism conferred by the words 'Kaffir limes'. I'd throw these fragile, desiccated morsels, rather like crisp, curled bay leaves, into a heady mix of coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and shallots, every time hoping that they'd impart the lusciously fragrant aroma implied by their limey affinity, and every time finding myself disappointed, completely unable to notice any difference whatsoever. I tried adding more, but to no avail. Even sniffing deeply at the box or jar, I'd notice very little olfactory impact at all.
Then recently, I finally opened a packet of lime leaf tea I bought in a market in Cambodia last summer. Straight away I was hit by the astringent aroma, sharp and crisp, like a muskier version of a fresh lime. Brewing the leaves in boiling water, I marvelled at the pale jade colour of the resulting tea, and its feisty citrus flavour, reminiscent of ginger tea in its peppery, citrussy heat. This, I suddenly realised, was the real thing. This was how lime leaves should smell and taste: a deep, earthy yet vibrant aroma, like crossing potpourri with a fresh citrus fruit.
Still finding myself with a huge crate of Brazilian limes (despite my best endeavours in the way of gin and tonics, cheesecakes, curries and many bowls of fresh papaya, I still have about twenty left), I fortuitously caught sight of Nigel Slater's recent recipe in the Guardian for lime and lime leaf marmalade. As it used a whole nine limes, this seemed the perfect way to both use up some of my lime stash, and indulge my deep love of preserving.
Though I don't have as much time as I'd like to devote to the stirring of vats of sugary confections, preserving is one of my absolute favourite cooking tasks. I love the transformation of bright, fresh ingredients into something more muted, subtle, possessing a sweet and aromatic flavour of its own. I love the frugality and home economics of the activity, capturing something of the delicious seasonal fruit to eat long after the original product has disappeared (yes, amazingly, there are still some fruits that aren't available in this country year-round: gooseberries, rhubarb, blackcurrants, quinces, to name a few - essentially, all of my favourites, because I'm a masochist like that).
I love that I can put a few slices of homemade sourdough or soda bread into the toaster in the morning, and, while the smell of burnished bread wafts through the kitchen, peer into my jam cupboard and find myself with an array of delicious homemade preserves to choose from: fig jam, apple jam, quince jelly, and rhubarb and vanilla jam are just some of the current inhabitants of the cupboard. I never have to buy jam; why would I, when ladling a generous spoonful of the homemade version onto steaming toast is so infinitely more rewarding? I also love that each and every jar has come out of a mundane need to 'use something up' yet has produced a result that is infinitely more than convenience.
The rhubarb, for example, was the woody, sour, summer kind. Five bags of it had been sitting in the freezer, when last November I decided to clear them out in one fell swoop, simmering them in a pan with sugar and a vanilla pod to make the most ridiculously gorgeous pink jam, far more wonderful than I'd ever have expected from beholding those thick, green chunks of the original vegetable.
The apple and blackberry jam, too, notable for it cost me absolutely nothing: the blackberries were foraged from hedgerows in the Yorkshire dales, the apples were windfalls from the tree overhanging our garden in Cambridge, and the sugar and jars were already sitting patiently in the cupboard.
The fig jam I am most proud of, for it arose when I came home from holiday to find one of Mum's colleagues had given her a huge tray of figs from his garden, yet she'd allowed them to almost rot, sitting in the fruit bowl. They were far too far gone to be edible, soft and squishy with fruit flies hovering eagerly around in droves, but I managed to rescue them with the aid of a bag of jam sugar, transforming them into the most incredible jam, a deep khaki green, flecked with crunchy seeds and chewy pieces of fig flesh, and possessing a rich, caramelly flavour. I only made a few jars, but with every mouthful I feel proud of myself for rescuing those sad fruits - true testament to both the transformative and economical power of preserving.
Preserving may not be as trendy these days as the homely putting together of a Victoria sponge in a kitchen decked with bunting while wearing a Cath Kidston apron and using a Mason Cash mixing bowl, or the frivolous piping of buttercream onto a fussy cupcake, but for me it has an honesty and an integrity greater than almost any other kitchen pursuit. There is a quiet dignity in a homemade jar of jam or marmalade, adorned with a slightly wonky handwritten label. It speaks of promise and of patience.
Patience was definitely the keyword for my marmalade adventure. Now that I am a PhD student, my weekends have acquired something of a sacred quality. I try, as many PhD students are advised, to treat my research undertaking as a full-time job, working nine to five on campus during the week then taking the weekends off. By and large, it works well (except I won't lie, it's more like ten til five. But I cram a lot of intense work into those hours, so I think it's okay). Even then, I usually have at least something I can't escape doing at the weekends, so I try and make the remaining hours of leisure time count.
Last weekend, those hours were spent extracting the juice from nine limes, then using a teaspoon to scrape every last fragment of pith and membrane out of the shells of said limes. There are three things I would advise at this stage. Firstly, if, like me, you have a nasty habit of biting the skin around your fingers, this is going to hurt a LOT. Secondly, don't use a pretty Whittards teaspoon with a pleasantly decorated plastic handle, because the acid from the limes will melt the pattern into something veritably Dali-esque. Thirdly, don't be in a rush. This is not something to be rushed.
Oh, and one more thing - you can skip the gym for the weekend if you do this. Purging eighteen lime shells of their innards is surprisingly taxing on the upper arm muscles.
The fun doesn't end there. You then need to shred the lime peel. Nigel Slater was kind enough to anticipate that by this stage, the last thing you probably want to do is painstakingly slice the peel into slivers, so he offers the alternative of chucking it all in the food processor. While I think hand-slicing it would give a more attractive final result, with delicate tendrils of peel suspended in the golden sugary liquid, I probably would have burst into frustrated tears had I decided to attempt this. Instead, it was made light work of in seconds by those spinning electronic blades, and I could sit down for a minute. I had juiced a couple of Meyer lemons for a lemon tart that day, and by some presence of mind had saved the skins, so they went in there too - Meyer lemons have a gorgeous floral fragrance that I thought would be fabulous with the limes and lime leaves. The result of the ferocious blitzing was a beautiful speckled medley of green and yellow shreds.
After that, everything is fairly simple. You bring the lime juice to the boil with some water, add the peel, then put the pulp from the limes into a muslin bag and suspend it in the mixture, boiling it for an hour or so. Then you add the sugar and lime leaves.
This is part two of my lime leaf revelation.
Three words: buy them frozen.
I was vaguely aware you could get frozen lime leaves in Chinese supermarkets, but I'd never remembered while there to have a look. I was delighted to find a large tub of frozen leaves in the Chinese supermarket just down the road (my house is excellently located in York for two reasons: one, it's opposite the gym; two, it's about ten minutes from a brilliant Middle Eastern and a Chinese supermarket), for the princely sum of £1.60. There must be at least a hundred leaves in it, so it's ridiculously good value for money.
Comparing frozen lime leaves with dried is like comparing fresh basil with dried: there is simply no contest. The leaves, added to the bubbling syrupy vat of citrussy marmalade, imparting the most incredible fragrance to the liquid and to my house. It's hard to describe the smell of fresh (well, frozen, but once thawed they're as fresh as you'll get outside Thailand) lime leaves, but suffice to say they possess all the positive attributes of a fresh lime - zesty, zingy, citrussy - plus something extra in the form of their aromatic fragrance.
This marmalade makes your house smell wonderful, like a sweet shop: warm, spicy, cosseting. It turns a beautiful amber colour, flecked with pale shards of lime peel that soften in their sugary bath so that you can crush them easily with your fingertips. The lime leaves work beautifully to consolidate all that fresh lime flavour, adding a little delicate perfume too.
Ladling the glossy, golden mixture into jars, I suddenly didn't mind so much that I'd spent my weekend in agonising pain, hands smothered in acid, teaspoons melting, millions of sticky, sugary utensils waiting in the sink to be washed. Because I'll get to spend my next precious weekend kicking back, relaxing, and eating doorstop slices of dark soda bread spread thickly with this beautiful fragrant preserve.
It's hard to describe the complex flavour of this marmalade; it's fresh and citrussy, yet also has an amazing deep, fragrant tang to it from the lime leaves. It's a beautiful golden colour - not an artificial green, as you often find in inferior commercial lime marmalade - and it isn't too sweet; there's just enough sugar to bring out the myriad flavours within. It's really best if you just give it a go for yourself and see what I mean.
The marmalade recipe, by Nigel Slater, is here on the Guardian website. I didn't make any changes apart from using the peel of two Meyer lemons as well as the lime peel, instead of the one normal lemon he suggests, as I happened to have some left over and thought their unusual bergamot-esque fragrance would work well in the mix.
Sometimes, you just have a bit of a brainwave in the kitchen. A sudden spark of inspiration, filling you thrillingly with the utmost conviction that yes, these two ingredients are just made for each other, or that wow, that would be the perfect cooking method for this particular thing, or that yes, it is completely a good idea to alter such and such a recipe in a certain way to make something new and wonderful. These are wonderful little moments of insight, familiar no doubt to anyone who is lucky enough to indulge in the creative process as a hobby or even as a career path. I only wish I had as many moments of revelation during my PhD work as I do during my kitchen hours.
Perhaps this is okay, though - convenient, even. Nature, observing that I am spending my working hours grappling with ridiculously abstract concepts, horrifically complex academic treatises and a general nebulous mass of incoherent ideas, kindly decides to make everything come together and make sense in at least one area of my life. And let's be honest, if there's one time when you want everything to make sense, it's when eating is involved. Far more important than academic matters.
A bowl of kumquats had been providing me with a source of anxiety for a couple of weeks.
(This, in my world, is a totally normal sentence.)
Seriously, though. I was wracking my brains to decide what to do with them. Although I could have made this delightful kumquat and vanilla cheesecake again, I figured I should branch out a bit. I thought about an upside-down cake, but it never materialised. I wanted to use them in a savoury dish, given my penchant for fruit in savoury food, but the ideas weren't really flowing.
While I pondered, there they sat in their little punnet, looking totally inconspicuous in an orange, bulbous sort of way, until I realized that a couple at the bottom of the pile had turned blue and furry, and were thus polluting and infecting the rest with their mouldy pestilence.
Thus began a battle against time, to save the kumquats before that tragic disease of the blue furry coat spread throughout their ranks and decimated the lot.
Gosh, it was stressful.
Kumquats aren't the most common of ingredients. I reckon many of you won't ever have tried them. They look like little elongated oranges, with a firm shiny skin. Their flavour is intensely refreshing, quite sharp and sour but with a really strong citrus hit. They are a powerful little ingredient, and need something quite strong (or sweet/creamy, hence the cheesecake) to balance them out.
I'd been pondering various uses: in salads, as a compote alongside meat (they're quite good with venison), as a compote on top of porridge...until one day, I don't even remember why or how, I suddenly had the brainwave to roast them with some wedges of fennel and serve them with fish.
I can't really tell you why I thought this would be a good idea. I guess it started because I love the combination of fennel and fish. I usually just shave it wafer-thin and serve it as a salad, but I thought its aniseedy crunchiness would be wonderful roasted into soft, melting, sugary tenderness in the oven. I thought roasting the kumquats would concentrate their intense citrus flavour and also soften them a little, as they're quite hard and crunchy when raw. I figured the whole lot - sweet, fresh, crunchy, sour - would pair very well with the rich oiliness of cooked salmon.
I could have complicated this recipe quite a lot. Added some wedges of cooked beetroot, maybe. Some grains or pulses to bulk it out a bit. More herbs. Some toasted pine nuts for crunch. Wilted spinach for greenery. All of these would be excellent additions, I'm sure, but for once I wanted to keep it simple. Just salmon, fennel, kumquats, and mint. Fresh mint works very well with fennel and with citrus, and here it is perfect, giving a lovely freshness to the roasted vegetable and fruit medley.
I sprinkled the kumquats and fennel with a little sugar and drizzled them with oil before roasted them for half an hour or so. Their edges scorch and become burnished and caramelised, while they soften and become more concentrated in flavour, much sweeter and almost melting in texture. Tossed with salt, pepper and fresh mint, they are absolutely delicious.
Finally, a drizzle of some fabulous bergamot-infused olive oil from this wonderful range of infused olive oils that I've mentioned before (see this chocolate and mandarin olive oil cake). If you've never tried bergamot before (apart from maybe in Earl Grey tea), it's fantastic - incredibly zesty and fresh, rather like a cross between a lime, lemon and grapefruit. This oil really packs a punch - it was the first time I'd used it, and I couldn't believe the amount of flavour it brought to the salad, combining really well with the rich fish and the zesty kumquats. If you don't have bergamot oil, though, you could just add a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lime.
This is an incredibly simple recipe, but it is unusual and delicious. The roasted fennel and kumquats with the mint and bergamot oil would make a fabulous side dish to accompany most things: chicken, fish (particularly trout, mackerel and salmon), pork and grilled halloumi cheese would all work wonderfully with it. As it's quite sweet, it works very well with rich things that need a little taming, like oily fish or cheese. It's a real riot of fresh, zingy flavours, yet warm and comforting at the same time from the soft caramelised fennel. I'm pretty proud of this ingredient combination, as it's not one I've ever seen before but it just works so well.
A perfect way to use up an anxiety-inducing bowl of maturing kumquats.
Salmon with roasted kumquats and fennel (serves 2):
- 1 large bulb of fennel, sliced into wedges
- 12 kumquats, halved
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- A few sprigs of fresh mint, leaves finely chopped
- 2 fillets ready-cooked salmon
- 2 tbsp bergamot-infused olive oil (optional - you could also use lemon-infused oil, or just olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Place the fennel and kumquats in a baking dish and drizzle over a little olive oil. Scatter with salt, pepper and sprinkle with the sugar. Toss together. Roast for around 30 minutes, until starting to scorch and caramelise, and the fennel is tender.
Divide the fennel and kumquats between two plates. Sprinkle with the mint and flake over the pieces of salmon. Finally, drizzle with the bergamot oil and serve.
I really didn't want to start this post with a 'when life gives you lemons' remark. However, these are no ordinary lemons. So I'll soften the cliché blow and alter the old adage thus:
"When Tesco unexpectedly offers you a four-pack of elusive and infamous Meyer lemons from California, the kind you read wonderful things about on American food blogs but had never expected to be able to try, you eagerly snap them up. Then, after a lengthy thought process about what possibly to do with this golden bounty, you end up making this tart."
Meyer lemons, as I have read many a time on said American food blogs, are a very different thing to the pale yellow, firm, mouth-puckeringly sour variety we are used to finding in supermarkets. They are thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin or orange, which explains their colour - more marigold than yellow. Their skin is thinner than a normal lemon, and they have a much sweeter, more fragrant flavour than their regular cousins, which generally just offer a hit of tartness rather than any distinct flavour to speak of. I couldn't wait to try them.
It was difficult to know where to begin when coming up with a recipe for my little gold beauties, harmoniously nestled in their grey cardboard tray. As soon as I brought them into the kitchen, they spoke of sunshine, a radiant presence on the otherwise dark kitchen table, cast in flat winter light. I know I always talk about how generous mother nature is at this time of year, bestowing such colourful, flavoursome fruit on us when we need it most (champagne rhubarb, blood oranges, lychees, persimmon...), but it really is true, and this is another classic example.
(Of course, this argument would suggest that mother nature had anticipated the invention of air travel, knowing that we in the cold, grey UK would have access to the bounty of the Caribbean, Asia, or Peru, but let's not focus too much on that...)
After a quick google, I found a great article on the LA Times: 100 things to do with a Meyer lemon. Aside from some strange, non-culinary uses (put slices in your bath, anyone?), it was fascinating, and suddenly made me realise how useful and versatile the humble lemon can be. Frequently a back note in a recipe - a hit of acidity in a dressing, a subtle fragrance imparted to the cavity of a roast chicken - lemons rarely become the star.
I do have a couple of recipes that bring the lemon into prominence. One is an incredible roast chicken recipe from Ottolenghi, where chicken pieces are marinated in lemon juice, red onion, spices and olive oil before being roasted with thinly sliced lemons on top. The lemons soak up the fatty chickeny juices and turn crispy, meaning you can eat the whole thing. The combination of sharp, gooey roasted lemon with the deep savoury chicken skin is incredible. Another is a simple lemon drizzle cake that I found on the BBC Good Food website and which is devastatingly delicious. I also tuck lemon slices into a whole trout before baking it in a foil parcel, which is delicious, as is a hit of lemon juice and zest added to a sort of broccoli pesto sauce for pasta.
I didn't want to bake the lemons like this, though, for fear of losing their subtle fragrance and aroma. I wanted a recipe that would capture the pure essence of the Meyer lemon in all its glory, as simple and unadulterated as possible.
You can't get much more lemon-centric than a good lemon tart.
Shockingly, I've never actually baked this classic dessert before. I love a good lemon tart, indulgent yet refreshing after a meal, but for some reason I've always thought it would be tricky to make, and have steered clear. There are things that can go wrong: a soggy pastry bottom, a curdled lemon filling, an overbaked and rubbery lemon filling, too much sugar so it cloys or too little so it leaves your mouth numb. However, always keen to try new things in the kitchen, and convinced that a simple lemon tart would be the best way to showcase the Meyer lemons, I went with it.
I found the recipe on the excellent food site Food 52. It seemed very simple, perfectly in keeping with what I was after. The slightly unusual part is that instead of a pastry crust, it uses a shortbread mixture that is pressed into a tart tin to line it. This is good for three reasons: one, it dispenses with the faff of making pastry; two, no risk of a soggy bottom here; and three, it tastes damn delicious.
How could it not taste delicious? You beat softened butter and sugar with a wooden spoon until creamy and fluffy (good exercise for the biceps - means you can eat more of the finished product). You then beat in semolina and flour, to make pale golden crumbs that smell warm and buttery. It's exactly like making shortbread, but you press it into the tin in a hollow crust shape, rather than a solid round.
After pressing the shortbread crumbs into the tin, you make lemon curd. Not nearly as scary or difficult as it sounds. This was great fun to make: squeezing my precious lemons into a bowl along with an indecent number of golden egg yolks, a pile of sugar, and the zest of the fruit. Whisking this pale yellow liquid over a low heat until suddenly, like magic, it had transformed into the most lusciously thick, marigold, glossy lemon curd. It's a bit like making custard or crême patisserie - you're standing there for ages stirring, stirring, stirring, bored...and then suddenly it turns, thickens, becomes shiny and wonderful.
Then you whisk in cubes of butter, which is the fun part - watching it melting under the pressure of the whisk and turning the curd even thicker and glossier. Naturally, I had to taste-test some. It had the perfect balance of sweet and tart, with a lovely fragrant zestiness from the Meyer lemons. It inspired me to make my own lemon curd more often, to eat for breakfast.
The curd goes into the baked shortbread crust and into the oven for a very brief bake, to just set it while allowing it to still have a little quivering wobble. It comes out perfectly smooth, translucent, glorious yellow - the colour of sunshine, citrus, and fat, globular egg yolks.
Once I tasted this, I knew I'd never make another lemon tart recipe again. The shortbread base, short and buttery and slightly crispy with the addition of semolina, is ridiculously fabulous. Couple this buttery richness with a smooth, sticky, deeply sweet and tart lemon curd, and you just have the most glorious dessert. If you don't have Meyer lemons, I'm sure you could use normal lemons and just up the sugar content a little to make up for their sourness. This is a recipe that should be on everyone's list of regular desserts. It is honestly one of the best desserts I've ever made.
More than that, it provides a welcome burst of citrus sunshine during the depths of winter. Sitting there on my kitchen table while I faffed around taking photos, the mere sight of it cheered me up. It sat there, almost glowing, as if I'd just turned a light on. Its buttery, fresh citrus taste is a welcome presence after the dark, sticky, alcohol- and dried fruit-laden puddings of Christmas. It slices gloriously into a perfect wedges of sunshine, sweet gelatinous curd on its toasty biscuit base.
So now you have your answer. When life gives you Meyer lemons, you make this lemon tart. There's really no other option.
The Meyer lemon shortbread tart recipe can be found here, on the Food 52 site.
Incidentally, I've made this twice now. The first time I served it with a scoop of crème fraîche, which was lovely, but the second time I made my own Earl Grey ice cream to accompany it. As lemon and Earl Grey is such a classic combination, I'd recommend trying this out if you have the time to make your own ice cream - it really is a delicious pairing.
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
- 225g sugar
- 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.
I've decided to further investigate the intriguing kumquat. I have eaten these little citrus beauties three times: first at Gordon Ramsay's York & Albany restaurant; next, I tried them in a sharp compote with venison, and last week I decided to explore their dessert potential. I find them curiously exciting: I think it's because you wouldn't think, from looking at their dimpled, waxy skins, that you could put one in your mouth whole and enjoy it. Yet you can: they have an astringent edge that ideally requires the mellowing effect of dairy, but they are certainly not unpleasant raw and unadulterated. I love finding a new ingredient and thinking of interesting and tasty ways to use it. Seeing as the kumquat is part of the citrus family, I started thinking about other flavours that go well with oranges and lemons. I came up with ginger, and also remembered the blood orange cheesecake I made a while ago. I decided that the tartness of the kumquats would work very well folded into a crumbly, sweet, creamy cheesecake.
I debated over what type of cheesecake to make: both the unbaked, gelatine-set version and the baked, crumbly, thickly creamy version have their merits. I think either would work with the kumquats, but because they are so sour, I decided they needed a stronger cheesecake mixture with more texture to stand up to them, so the baked version won. Plus I just love making baked cheesecakes: it's immensely satisfying to spoon a bowlful of loose, creamy cheese and eggs into a tin and watch it emerge a little while later with a golden hue on top, cracked in places and starting to turn firm at the edges, but still with a little gelatinous wobble in the centre.
First, I made a kumquat compote. This was nothing more than a little water and sugar boiled together until syrupy, to which I added some quartered kumquats and cooked with a lid on until they had softened. I then stirred in rather a lot of ground ginger. This is incredibly delicious as it is: the skins of the kumquats become soft and slippery and taste rather like the thick zest you find in rustic, homemade marmalade. I ate rather a lot of it for testing purposes. The ginger gives quite a kick to it, which, combined with the intense sweetness, is wonderful. It's immensely refreshing, like the fruit itself: it has the edible tartness of grapefruit, and the perfume of orange.
Next, I made a basic cheesecake mixture: ricotta, creme fraiche, eggs, sugar, a little honey. I also added rather a lot of vanilla extract: I've become a bit obsessed with it lately, and as it somehow makes everything taste sweeter, I thought it would help heighten the contrast between the tart fruit and the sweet cheesecake. I sprinkled some crumbled ginger biscuits over the bottom of a cake tin for the base, and then swirled some of the kumquat compote through the cake mixture. I poured it over the base, and put it in the oven for about 50 minutes. It took longer to cook than I'd expected, probably because the mixture came quite high up in the tin. I left it a little bit wobbly in the middle; that way you get a delicious creamy centre and a thicker, crumbly exterior.
When the cake had cooled, I spooned the rest of the kumquats on top. I was going to arrange them into some kind of Michelin-starred precision, but then realised that they looked pleasingly rustic just piled on top. A sprig of mint, and it was finished. The contrasting colours are just beautiful: dark biscuit, creamy golden cheesecake, and the luscious orange of the citrus fruit on top.
It tastes wonderful. I was really pleased with this, especially because I made it up in my head and it worked out as well as I could have hoped. The combination of creamy cheesecake with firm, tart-sweet fruit is delicious; the little slivers of kumquat hidden inside the cake are a lovely surprise in every mouthful. The ginger in the compote and in the biscuit base is also excellent with the sweet creaminess of the cake. I'm very happy with this.
Kumquat cheesecake (serves 4-6):
- Kumquats (I didn't weigh them, but about two large handfuls should be enough - or you can use more and make extra compote to eat with ice cream or porridge)
- 100ml water
- 60g sugar
- 15 ginger nut biscuits
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 250g ricotta cheese
- 150ml creme fraiche
- 90g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1-2 tsp vanilla extract
Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Grease and line an 18cm springform cake tin (you can use a 20cm tin - if so reduce the cooking time by about 5-10 minutes).
Place the sugar and water in a small pan and heat until boiling. Quarter the kumquats lengthways, remove the stones, and place in the syrup. Cover with a lid and simmer until the fruit has softened. You want there to still be some liquid remaining in the pan - add a little more water if it has dried up; conversely, if it is too runny, take off the lid and simmer for a bit. Add the ground ginger and leave to cool. Taste it - you might want a little more sugar or ginger.
Place the ginger biscuits in a food processor and process to fine crumbs. Place in the bottom of the tin. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a food processor or using a hand whisk. Stir through some of the kumquat compote - you want to leave enough to decorate the top of the cake. Don't mix it in too much - you want a sort of ripple effect in the finished cake.
Place the cake in the oven, and bake for 45-55 minutes. If it starts to brown too much on top, cover with foil. It doesn't matter if it cracks a little - it's ready when it's firm and golden at the edges and still slightly wobbly in the middle. Leave to cool with the oven door open, then place in the fridge and chill.
Before serving, spoon the rest of the kumquat compote over the cake. Decorate with mint sprigs, dust with icing sugar, and serve.