THE MORNING STARTED like many others during winter in the Pacific Northwest. Gray. Dreary. Rain pelting the windows. I kept gravitating toward the window in my kitchen, sure I had forgotten to twist open the blinds, but no; it was just that dark outside. To combat the weather, I decided to manufacture a little sunshine in the form of lemon curd.
Whisking together a handful of pantry ingredients, turning a brothy, butter-chunk-laden nothing into a luscious, bright sort of custard in about 10 minutes, is just the sort of kitchen magic I am in love with, especially on a dreary day.
Lemon curd is an old recipe, around since the mid-1800s in Britain, and sometimes referred to as “lemon cheese.” And, like any recipe, there are a million different versions. Some have whole eggs, while others call for just the yolks; some call for vanilla or water or even different juices. The recipe I have found to be easy, with excellent results, always comes from my 75th Anniversary edition of “Joy of Cooking,” a standard tome for many cooks.
Despite curds being around for hundreds of years, they’ve never been incredibly popular. The first mention of a recipe for lemon curd doesn’t appear in The New York Times until January 1956, with a note to would-be makers that, “Strangers to lemon curd may find the name unappealing.”
Stewards and authors of the nearly 90-year-old “Joy of Cooking,” John Becker and Megan Scott, say curds have had a presence in “Joy” only since the 1997 edition. Before that, Becker says, the closest thing was a lemon-filling recipe.
“A super cake-filling-centric recipe in the ’60s and ’70s that had cornstarch in it as well and quite a bit of liquid, which was really weird; it’s almost like lemon was too much and too tart,” Becker says.
The recipe is located in the “fillings” section of the book, which Becker thinks is interesting.
“I know there’s no better place for it, but I love it on toast, and that’s how I was introduced to it,” he says.
Bright, tart and incredibly versatile, there’s no reason curd shouldn’t be a sweet standard. And indeed, lemon curd on warm toast is divine, but it also lends itself well atop a cloud of meringue or Pavlova, sandwiched between layers of fluffy cake, spread atop shortbread cookies or cheesecake, in place of jam on scones or simply eaten with a spoon. And the delight doesn’t stop with lemon.
“I really love lime; it has almost more of a spicy flavor,” Scott says.
Just about any citrus (“I think bergamot would be way too much,” notes Becker) would work as a curd: grapefruit, orange, calamansi or yuzu.
“I’ve made a mango curd before, and it’s certainly more than possible to make a mango curd, but you need to add in some citrus juice. Otherwise, it’s going to taste really flat,” Scott says.
Strawberry, passion fruit, even cranberry curds could be in the cards. Scott says to just play with your recipe and, “Add enough citrus to make it twang.”
“When you’re eating a citrus or fruit curd, you want it to have a bracing or tart flavor,” she says.
The newest edition of “Joy of Cooking” contains recipes for lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange curd. Each follows a simple standard: swapping out zest and juice for each respective citrus fruit. From tangerine to Meyer lemon, there’s more than enough sunshiny custards to help get us through the rest of these gray winter days, one bowl at a time.
Yield: about 1 2/3 cups
Whisk together in a medium saucepan until light in color:
3 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
½ cup strained lemon juice
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Cook, whisking, over medium heat until the butter is melted. Then whisk constantly until the mixture is thickened and simmers gently for a few seconds. Using a silicone spatula, scrape the filling into a medium-mesh sieve set over a bowl, and strain the filling into the bowl. Stir in ½ teaspoon vanilla.
Let cool, cover and refrigerate to thicken. This keeps refrigerated for about 1 week.
Lime or Grapefruit Curd
Prepare lemon curd, above, substituting finely grated zest of 2 limes or 1 grapefruit for the lemon zest, and using ½ cup strained lime or grapefruit juice instead of lemon juice.
Prepare lemon curd, above, substituting the finely grated zest of 1 large orange for the lemon zest and using ¼ cup lemon juice and ¼ cup orange juice in place of the lemon juice.