Is Lemon the New Chocolate?

Is lemon the new chocolate? Probably not, but all it takes is one bite of the lemon trifle at River Roast to make you ponder the possibility. Tart enough to be refreshing, yet sweet enough to satisfy even the most demanding sweet tooth, the trifle is the restaurant’s most popular dessert.

John Hogan, River Roast’s executive chef, says he chose lemon because its acidity partners especially well with the roasted meats, poultry, and fish that anchor the restaurant’s menu. As for the lemon curd, it’s a personal favorite.
“I’ve used the lemon curd in parfaits and tarts, but I’ve never done a trifle before,” Hogan explains. “It’s a very British dessert, so it pairs well with the kind of food we serve. Roasted meats are, after all, British cooking at its best.”

River Roast's Lemon Trifle

River Roast's Lemon Trifle


The trifle piqued my curiosity about lemons in general and lemon desserts in particular. In the introduction to her book “Luscious Lemon Desserts” (Chronicle Books, 2001) author Lori Longbotham says her book is “the first ever lemon dessert book.” She adds, “Lemons, like salt, bring out the flavors of other ingredients and make everything taste fresher and brighter. They work wonders in savory dishes, but they truly shine in desserts.”

Lemons are probably the result of a two-step cross-the first between a citron and a lime and the second between the issue of the first and a pomelo. Depictions of fruit resembling lemons have been found in frescos dating to Roman times, but in “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press, 1999), author Alan Davidson says the fruit, at that point, was more likely to have been viewed as a curiosity or decoration than a foodstuff.

Davidson credits the Arabs with the introduction of lemons as a cultivar to the Mediterranean region, probably in the 7th century AD. A few centuries later, Arab traders took lemons east to China, where the earliest references date to the Sung period (960-1279 A.D.)

Lemons arrived in the New World as cargo on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. The Spanish eventually planted lemon trees in Florida and in California, where the population boom generated by the discovery of gold in 1849 fueled a sharp rise in the acreage devoted to growing them. Davidson speculates that since 1950, California “has apparently produced more lemons than all of Europe combined.”

Longbotham divides lemons into three categories: common, rough and sweet. The latter aren’t really “sweet;” they’re simply less acidic than the typical lemon. Meyer lemons exemplify the genre, and if they’re available, they’re an excellent choice. Meyer lemons juice well and are easy to zest with a microplane.

In a clear case of “better late than never,” I’m developing an appreciation for the flavor lemon zest delivers when added to food. As Davidson points out, lemon zest contains essential oils that “perfume” food, in addition to adding flavor.

So invest in a microplane (if you don’t already have one), and make a point of adding lemon zest to all of your lemon desserts, including the following curd from chef John Hogan. One bite, and like John Hogan, you’ll say “I just love it.”

John Hogan’s Lemon Curd
9 lemons
9 whole eggs
7 egg yolks
20 ounces sugar
1 pound cold butter

Method:
Zest and juice lemons and set aside
Whisk eggs, yolks and sugar together
Over a slow, simmering water bath, whisk lemon/egg mixture until thick. (You can use a double boiler for this step. As for the “thickness,” think Hollandaise.)
Remove the pan from the heat. Add the cold butter.
At this point, you can chill the curd slightly (over ice) and use as desired.

River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle Street,312.822.0100
Lunch and dinner Mondays-Fridays, Brunch Saturdays and Sundays

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