011117MP-CVHG-Possetts-3

Lemon possets 

MATTHEW PUTNEY, COURIER PHOTO EDITOR

This probably doesn't come as a surprise, but I'm hyper-critical about recipes.

Recipes are like blueprints: if they're not designed well, your dish will fall apart, as surely as a house built on an uneven foundation with crumble.

(I'll note here that my ire is reserved for professionals, not home cooks. If you're making money off me — whether that's through a cookbook sale or ads on your blog — I expect a quality product.)

I judge the worth of a recipe in three areas, the most immediate of which is the writing itself. Are the ingredients listed in order of use? Are all of the ingredients listed, and are all of the listed ingredients called for? (I've seen examples of both!)

Additionally, are the steps explained clearly? Are there good notes about the equipment required? If I'm pouring cream into hot sugar to make caramel, I know I need a saucepan with high sides to keep it from foaming over -- but not everyone will.

Those are the mistakes I don't forgive lightly. I'm somewhat softer in the second area: technique. There are a hundred ways to prepare any given dish, so I don't expect that I'm going to agree with the given method.

On top of that, cooking is full of old wives' tales that refuse to die. Use old eggs for hard boiling! (Except fresher eggs are less apt to leave a green ring and the yolks are more likely to be centered.) Don't check on the cake early, or you'll cause it to fall! (You can literally slam your oven door shut and your cake will be fine.)

That's why I don't expect every recipe writer to know, say, dissolving cocoa powder in boiling water amps up the chocolate flavor it provides. But you better believe if I have a recipe with water and cocoa, I'm adapting it so they get mixed together.

My crankiness aside, those areas are fairly superficial — and easy to fix. I can rewrite a recipe in the right order with my own notes in short fashion.

It's the third area — what I think of as the payoff ratio — that really counts. Is the finished dish worth all the hassle? This is incredibly subjective, of course, but it's critical.

Take the recipe I use for Chicken Tikka Masala, an Indian curry. First you rub the chicken with spices, let it rest, coat it in a yogurt mixture, broil it, let it rest again and cut it into chunks. Oh, don't forget the sauce. And the rice. And the naan.

Forty-two dirty dishes and utensils later, and I'm ready to eat. It's a time- and labor-intensive meal to prepare, but it's also one of the best things I've ever eaten. Therefore, it has earned a place in my personal Pantheon of Recipes.

On the flip side, I like cake truffles just fine — or cake pops or cake balls, whatever you want to call them — but I refuse to make them because the finished product does not justify the aggravation of the shaping and dipping process.

Once in a blue moon, I make a discovery akin to finding a unicorn standing in a field of four-leaf clovers at the end of a rainbow: an easy recipe that also tastes amazing. Lemon Posset with Berries is one of those magical unicorns.

The instructions have a bit more detail, but this four-ingredient dessert boils down to zest lemons, juice lemons, stir, strain. The creamy, pudding-like mixture that results packs a big punch of citrus flavor.

Lemon isn't the only flavor that works here, of course; I've experimented with milder orange, though brash lime is equally lovely, especially when paired with cherry. Heck, go for grapefruit, if that's your thing, but the lemon will always be tops for me.


Lemon Posset with Berries

Reducing the cream mixture to exactly 2 cups creates the best consistency. Transfer the liquid to a 2-cup heatproof liquid measuring cup once or twice during boiling to monitor the amount. Do not leave the cream unattended, as it can boil over easily.

• 2 cups heavy cream

• 2/3 cup granulated sugar

• 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest plus 6 tablespoons juice (2 lemons)

• 1 1/2 cups blueberries or raspberries

1. Combine cream, sugar and lemon zest in medium saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Continue to boil, stirring frequently to dissolve sugar. If mixture begins to boil over, briefly remove from heat. Cook until mixture is reduced to 2 cups, 8 to 12 minutes.

2. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in lemon juice. Let sit until mixture is cooled slightly and skin forms on top, about 20 minutes. Strain through fine-mesh strainer into bowl; discard zest. Divide mixture evenly among 6 individual ramekins or serving glasses.

3. Refrigerate, uncovered, until set, at least 3 hours. Once chilled, possets can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Unwrap and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with berries and serve.

Variations: For a softer-set Creamsicle Posset with Berries, substitute navel oranges for the lemons. For Cherry Limeade Posset, substitute three to four limes for the lemons and top with cherry compote or cherry pie filling.

Chef's notes: The lower acidity of orange juice curdles less of the cream than lemon juice does, leaving it less firm; limes avoid this pitfall. While the recipe insists on individual portions, I serve this in a very unsexy loaf pan to no ill effect when I'm not trying to impress.

Adapted from America's Test Kitchen.

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