I've had my share of "whoops!" moments in the kitchen. Sometimes it feels like more than my share, actually, but when I consider how much time I spend in the kitchen, I guess proportionately it all evens out.
But still, it seems to happen all the time. With little things, about which I should clearly know better, given my history and training. Two weeks ago, I made pancakes for breakfast. Now, I do this every Sunday, almost without fail, and I should be able to do the whole routine asleep, or at least with my eyes closed. (Which, on some very early Sundays, is exactly how it feels like I'm doing it.) Sometimes I switch out the milk for buttermilk. Separating the eggs and whipping the whites into a meringue always leads to good things. I recently stirred in some whole milk ricotta, to great applause. The recipe is so solid, it can withstand lots of tinkering and still turn out delicious pancakes.
So imagine the family's surprise when the batch on that particular two Sundays ago seemed . . . dull. Flat, both in flavor and structure. Boring. Eating them didn't really give our mouths the joy we were accustomed to. What had I done wrong?
Salt. I had, in my haste and desire to keep Wylie from upturning the whole bowl of batter, forgotten to add the salt. Boy, let me tell you that there's nothing like the absence of salt to drive home the crucial lesson of its importance in baking! Really, the lack of flavor wasn't that surprising, as all cooks know that salt makes everything taste like the best possible version of itself. But how many of us stop to think about the textural role salt contributes? I'm no food scientist, but I'm here to tell you that our normally light-and-fluffy pancakes were leaden and thick, in a not-good way. I don't know if it's tenderizing the crumb, assisting the leaveners, or performing some other type of culinary magic, but salt is apparently crucial to creating a pleasing mouthfeel in baked goods. Or at least it is in my gluten-free pancake recipe. Lesson learned.
Okay, so moving on, four days later I threw together some last-minute muffins. We were getting ready to leave for that two-day medical trip I mentioned, and there was leftover oatmeal from breakfast, and I thought whipping up a batch of muffins would be a great way to use up the oatmeal and give us yummy snacks for the car. I know, most people would have been packing or finishing up household chores, but I wanted to bake. That's just how I work. Anyway, I'd like to tell you that stirring oatmeal (especially if it's made with cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins) into a created-on-the-spot muffin batter is a really good idea. I mean, it's economical for the leftover factor, but it also lends a really nice flavor and pockets of moistness to the muffins. I would also like to tell you (and this is the part you should really pay attention to, just in case you're skimming) that xanthan gum (or guar gum, if that's your thing) is absolutely vital to turning out baked goods that can be eaten out of hand, rather than as a pile of crumbs, that you sort of awkwardly scoop and press together into some semblance of a piece that will hopefully make it to your mouth before collapsing back into its crumbly state. It has been such a long time since I have baked anything gluten-free without xanthan gum (intentionally or otherwise), that it was shocking and comical for me to see how unmanageable those muffins were. Can you believe that, years ago, when we had no idea what we were doing, all our gluten-free goods were like that? And we felt like we shouldn't complain, since at least we were eating! My, how things have changed. So, lesson number two: pay attention when baking without a recipe, and for goodness' sake, don't forget the xanthan gum!
There you have it: two major, rookie mistakes in the span of four days. Now you see what I mean about more than my share? But luckily, things swing in the other direction for me fairly often as well. There are plenty of times when my "whoops!" moments are really more like "wow, I had no idea that would turn out so well!" revelations. Which is exactly what happened this past Sunday.
We were invited to a friend's house for dinner, and I offered to bring dessert. But our weekend was pretty packed, and I didn't have much time for baking, never mind sorting through cookbooks and stacks of recipes looking for inspiration. So I looked through the fridge, instead. And found a bag of Meyer lemons that was looking pretty forlorn and forgotten, which a Meyer lemon should never be. I had been wanting to try a dessert pairing lemon and chocolate for a while now, so I decided to make Thomas Keller's chocolate mousse, with something lemony as a counterpart. The briefest of brief Internet searches led me to an unassuming (and uncredited) recipe for something called lemon cream. The ingredients looked like lemon curd, but the photos did not - more like lemon whipped cream, maybe. Well, okay, I'd make it and even if it wasn't great, there'd be chocolate mousse, too, and how can you go wrong with chocolate mousse?
Oh good lord. Forget about the chocolate mousse - that's everyday stuff compared to the lemon cream, which is truly in a league of its own. It's sort of like the xanthan gum situation: How did we ever get by without it? It is gentle and soft and light, with true lemon flavor and no cloying sweetness, and when you eat it, it feels like something that should be forbidden. Josh has proclaimed it the best thing you can do with a lemon, ever. This lemon cream was truly revelatory for me, and not just for its flavor and texture. The technique is brilliant - it's like making mayonnaise, with your emulsion in this case being one of lemon custard and butter. And as anyone who really knows me can attest, I love making mayonnaise, so this is right up my alley.
I had to know more about where this gem came from, so back to the Web I went. Another quick search led me to . . . Pierre Herme. Of course. I should have known that something so phenomenal was the work of a pastry genius, but it also probably means that I should have known about this recipe long ago. Ah well. Yet another lesson well-learned.
And in case you're wondering, the lemon cream paired fantastically with the mousse (the recipe for which can be found here), separated by a line of crushed gluten-free chocolate cookies, and everyone loved it. I don't repeat desserts much, but this one will certainly go on my short list of standards. It's just perfect.
Meyer Lemon Cream
adapted from Pierre Herme's Lemon Cream
215 grams eggs
75 grams granulated sugar
215 grams Meyer lemon juice
zest of 3 Meyer lemons
300 grams unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and at room temperature
In a large bowl, whisk together all but the butter. Place the bowl over a pot of just-simmering water (or use a double-boiler) and cook, whisking constantly, until the custard thickens. (You want your whisk to leave tracks through the custard.)
Immediately strain the custard through a fine sieve, then allow it to cool to around 140 degrees (warm to the touch). Begin slowly adding the butter, using an immersion blender to blend the cream. Continue blending and adding butter until all the butter is incorporated and the cream is light and airy. (Alternately, if you don't have an immersion blender, strain the custard into a blender, and blend the cream that way while adding the butter.)
I immediately topped the cups of mousse with this cream, then chilled them. But if you aren't assembling a dessert with it right away, press plastic wrap on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming and chill for at least 4 hours before using.
Lemon cream keeps 4 days refrigerated, and up to 2 months if frozen.
Posted by Tara Barker at 1:04 AM