A Taste of Home with a Twist: When I was a child, I loved to eat lemon cheese, also called lemon curd: the sweet, tart spread made so simply, so perfectly, of butter, sugar, eggs, lemon juice, and lemon zest. My mother made it in a small saucepan, putting in the ingredients without measuring, stirring, stirring, the heat never too high or the eggs would start to cook, leaving long white strands in the deep yellow of the lemon cheese. You can’t rush lemon cheese, as much as you may want to do, to taste it on a slice of thick brown bread or on some vanilla ice-cream, slightly melted. Instead, you stir, and stir, watching as the liquid starts to solidify slowly, every so slowly. My mother would stir it with a wooden spoon, patiently letting it cook. She’d let me taste it: too tart, too sweet? A small squeeze of lemon juice or a light sprinkle of fine white sugar, and then more stirring, more waiting. The lemon cheese was wonderful hot, slightly runny, spread across the bread. I’d often lick a little of it off the bread first, letting the taste linger on my tongue, then I’d bite into the bread, savoring the tartness of the lemon cheese, the slight salt of the butter, the crunch and heft of the bread. I also loved it when it cooled, becoming more solid and, if possible, even more full of lemon tartness. Then, I liked to scoop it from the glass jar with a spoon, put it in my mouth, and let the notes of sweet and tart explode together in my mouth.
The lemon cheese was very like the filling of the lemon meringue pies my mother made from scratch for certain occasions. The crust was slightly buttery, a little flakey, the filling a rich gold, made more so by the addition of our hens’ deep yellow eggs, and then there was the meringue: fluffy egg whites browned on top, with a dusting of sugar over the meringue’s many peaks. Perhaps there’s somewhere where you can find good store-made or restaurant lemon meringue pie, but I’ve yet to find it, which is a pity as I absolutely adore lemon meringue pie, and just writing this makes me crave it even more. Now, I only get it once a year, if I’m lucky, when my sisters and I manage to lure my mother into a kitchen and plead and cajole for a lemon meringue pie. Unfortunately, our growing family has meant growing devotees of lemon meringue pie, so the competition for each slice is fierce, the tactics for possession of the pie almost Machiavellian.
I could try to make lemon meringue pie, but I don’t have a mixer to whip up the meringue, and I don’t know if I have the patience for all the steps, particularly in my tiny Alabama kitchen: make and bake the pie crust, cook up the filling, crack the eggs for the meringue, carefully separating whites and yolks, and then beating, and beating, and beating the whites to make the meringue, keeping the mixer going until the meringue rises with the mixer as you pull it away from the bowl, forming a soft white mountain range in the bowl, then the careful spooning of the meringue onto the pie, then transferring the pie to the oven to cook the meringue, just enough for a soft browning, the whites and the sugar just starting to caramelize. It’s certainly delicious, but it’s certainly work.
However, I have made lemon cheese, and now, I make it with a twist, using limes from nearby Florida instead of lemons. I love the small green limes with their taunt shiny skin, and the sharp, bright smell as I slice into them. I shave off pieces of the rind to be cut up small, as I don’t have a zester, and squeeze the juice into a dish, then a place a knob of butter in an impromptu double-boiler, then mix sugar and lime juice in another bowl together, along with some zest, these then go into the double boiler, and then eggs, well-beaten, and I stir, trying not to overheat the mixture and stir, and stir again, for such a long time that I get weary of moving that wooden spoon round and round, shifting from foot to foot as my legs get tired, wondering if the mixture will ever solidify. And just as I am ready to give up it does, and I raise the wooden spoon to my lips, tasting: too sweet, too tart? No, just right.