Aaaahh… lemon curd, that silky, smooth, sweetness with a tart bite that makes your tongue sit up and take notice. Forget the stuff in the store – it’s little more than a gooey, sugary, preservative-filled gelatinous muck, completely undeserving of the name. This lemon curd will have you stashing it in the back of your fridge, to be spooned straight from the jar in secret. Because it’s just too good to share. (But try anyway.)
So what exactly IS lemon curd?
Lemon curd is defined as a “spread or preserves made thick with eggs, lemons, butter and sugar.” OK, sounds nice, but what’s all the hoopla about? It’s sold in the jam section, and maybe you think yeah, that’s nice, “but it ain’t no thang.”
Wrong. It IS a “thang,” but only the from-scratch version. Homemade lemon curd is the stuff dessert dreams are made of. It’s a soft pudding-like spread that dresses up scones, quick breads, and toast; it’s also a divine filling for cakes and tarts. In fact, there are a kajillion ways to use lemon curd for desserts, breakfast, tea time, and even for dinner. And some of us (not naming names) are content to just spoon it straight out of the jar. Like hot fudge sauce. But lemony. (Yes, this. Don’t judge.)
Let’s get one thing straight right now – the word “curd” is kind of ugly. Icky. Even a little gross. It means little more than the chunks you get from coagulating milk. As in, soured milk. Lumpy milk. Chunky milk. Barf.
But wait – aren’t curds are the first step in making cheese? Why yes, and they’re found in cottage cheese, too. And don’t forget soured milk (or its first cousin, buttermilk) to make delicacies like feather-light chocolate cake. Cloud-like biscuits. Fluffy waffles. But still, when it comes to lemons, the last thing you probably think of is “curd.”
Let’s fix that.
Lemon curd makes a great gift
For years I included a jar of it with the basket of gifts I gave my gal pals at our Annual Christmas Tea. The other gifts may have been forgotten over the years, but they’ll always remember the curd. It was eagerly anticipated every year and it always disappeared within days. One year, one of the gals was involved in a minor traffic accident on her way home from the party, and she ate the entire jar of curd that night. You can keep your Ben & Jerry’s – lemon curd is the quintessential comfort food.
Another fun fact is that there are flavor alternatives to lemon. Citrus fruits beg to be made into curd with alternatives like lime, orange and tangerine. And other fruits make delicious curd too, such as mango, passion fruit, and berries. Still, lemon curd is the all-’round fave of lemon lovers and secret-dessert-smugglers alike.
Ignore the “experts” – lemon curd is shockingly easy to make
With just a handful of ingredients, lemon curd is almost as quick to whip up as a box of instant pudding. And infinitely tastier and more versatile. With just a few minutes of prep work and a few minutes at the stove, you’ll have this exquisite spread made lickety split.
You’ll need to juice a few lemons. I say a “few” because I usually triple this recipe, but if you’re only making a single batch, one really large lemon (or two small ones) will do the trick. One large lemon gives about 1/3 cup juice, which is what you’ll need. (Again, I triple it, hence the pile of peels in the background. And they were really tiny lemons.)
You’ll also need to grate some zest. Don’t ignore this step. Sure, you can make decent lemon curd without the zest, but it’s the zest that give the curd the brightest, most lemony “bite you back” flavor. So just. say. no. to skipping this step. Besides, zesting a lemon takes just seconds to do with a snazzy zester like this. (My essential “lemon curd tools” will be listed below for your convenience.)
Whatever you do, DO NOT USE BOTTLED LEMON JUICE. No, I’m not shouting, but there you have it. You might as well buy the curd from the store if you’re going to cheat. To get the best and brightest flavor, that melt-in-your-mouth puddle of sweet/tart lemon silkiness, you must use freshly-squeezed lemon juice. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.
So how about that tartness?
How do you like your lemon desserts? Tart, I hope, because true, honest-to-gosh homemade lemon curd has lemony attitude. None of this namby pamby over-sweet, lemon-flavored nonsense. Good, honest, lemon curd bites back, but in the nicest way. Yes, there at the back of the mouth where your jaw hinges – lemon curd gets right in there and says, “Hey!”
You know you’ve had lemons when you eat homemade lemon curd.
Beware of imposter lemon curd
Run screaming from those recipes that call for vanilla unless you want to ruin it right then and there. Vanilla squashes lemony tartness faster than raindrops on cotton candy. And ignore those that call for cornstarch, too. With the right proportions of ingredients, lemon curd will firm up the way it should without any extra thickening agents. You’re not looking for a filling so firm you can cut it with a knife. That’s what lemon meringue pie is for, which is also divine, but not the same as lemon curd. (Though it’s every bit as delicious – just in a different format.)
Lemon curd is supposed to be somewhat soft. Not runny, but not cuttably hard, either. (Is “cuttably” even a word?) Lemon curd is somewhere in between.
Ignore the experts again and make it the “magic,” foolproof way
As with any cooked custard, there are certain steps that must be followed for brilliant success. However, these steps are cumbersome, time-consuming and not always successful. In fact, they’re a real PIA. I’m talking about things like whisking the eggs in one bowl, heating the lemon/sugar mixture in a saucepan, then performing that dreaded task of TEMPERING the eggs with the hot liquid.
If you’re not familiar with tempering, it’s the process where you combine the hot liquid with the eggs very slowly in a two-step process while whisking furiously to avoid scrambling the eggs. Because scrambled eggs would be nasty in the finished product. Chunks of scrambled eggs are never good except in a dish of, well, scrambled eggs.
Tempering is a hassle. Period. I’m going to eliminate all those steps. With my method, you:
- Put all ingredients in the sauce pot (yes, that includes the butter, which you don’t even need to soften);
- Blend them with a stick blender
- Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until finished.
I learned this method from my mother 40 years ago when making lemon meringue pie, and I’ve never seen it used anywhere else in my life. Back then, she used an Oster blender, and I did the same. We’d dump everything in, blend, then cook and stir. No more mixing eggs here, heating the lemon juice and sugar there, then combining them all using the irritating tempering method.
Then one day my blender broke, and I neglected to get another one until lo and behold, it was time to make lemon curd again. I panicked at the thought of making it the drudgy “old-fashioned” way, and then inspiration struck – my stick blender! Of course! And from that day forward, my lemon curd became even easier with fewer dishes to wash. (I still haven’t bought a new blender.)
The only other change I’ve made is that I always triple the recipe. This leaves enough for generous leftovers after giving some as gifts. Because if you’re going to make some, you might as well make a lot.
Now it’s your turn
Try this magic, foolproof lemon curd as soon as you can get your hands on some juicy lemons. It’s delicious in any season and you’ll never want to be without a jar of bright, lemony goodness in your fridge. Way in the back. Wrapped in foil, if necessary. Because who looks at foil-wrapped lumps anyway?
To help you get started, here are a few of my favoritest tools. I never make lemon curd without them.
Magic Lemon Curd – the Foolproof Method
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 stick butter (salted is fine)
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tbs finely grated lemon rind
- 3 eggs
- 1 egg yolk
- In stainless steel saucepan, combine all ingredients.
- Blend with stick blender (or blend in a stand blender, then pour mixture into saucepan).
- Cook over low heat until mixture is thick and coats the back of a metal spoon.
- Pour into jars and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks. The curd will continue to thicken as it cools.
- This recipe can be doubled or tripled successfully.
- Use a stainless steel sauce pan. Aluminum will react with the eggs and lemon, giving a metallic taste to the curd as well as a slightly greenish color.
- No need to strain the curd. The lemon peel is so fine that it is almost unnoticeable and is there for enhanced flavor. But you can strain the final product into the jars if you wish.
- Lemon curd can be stored in the freezer for 3-6 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before serving.
- I use salted butter, but purists can use unsalted and add salt if they wish.
- For instant gratification, save time and cool the curd in an ice bath. Simply half-fill a large bowl with ice, add enough water to come up to the lower 1/4 of the sauce pan, and stir the curd until it’s cold and thick. No need to wait!