Sunday, October 7, 2012

Food Nostalgia

In tough times, people get nostalgic. Sometimes they even decide that the past is possible to recapture through eating products that are still sold, but which their sophisticated palates had long since rejected as junk.

I read an article to this effect in either Slate or Salon, a few years ago, and I actually took the bait. Why not try some gelatin product or a box of pie filling, right off the supermarket shelf? No, not the chocolate pudding. I've no objection to that, because when you put all that milk into it (and perhaps add a little better cocoa or melt chocolate), it's actually quite good and needs no convoluted justification based on the idea that we have turned into food snobs and should just return to our old ways. Gas-guzzling cars without seat-belts were another feature of that earlier age.

Egged on, I bought some lemon meringue filling, because I remembered sort of liking that kind of pie. Yes, I had moved on to something richer - home-made lemon curd or something similar (cf. The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, by Flo Braker, which has two or three versions of a citrus cream which can be topped with fresh fruit like blueberries or ripe melon, set in a tart shell - now that's pie!). But isn't the supermarket thing good enough? I remember that it used to come with a gelatin capsule of lemon oil which broke at the end of a long heating, probably a MadMan "hidden persuader" idea of an orgasm for the housewife. Maybe the lemon oil now comes powdered in, but wouldn't it be just as good?

So I made the stuff, which still took about ten minutes to heat. When it had cooled off, I tasted it. Gosh, it seemed so bitter. The color was pale and dull. Okay, maybe they had eliminated some food dye of the past which was implicated in cases of cancer. But couldn't they find some other way to make it look better?

Reader, I threw it in the trash. Then I remembered how fast the curd made up - just as fast as the supermarket convenience food. Yes, you need a lemon, you need something to grate off a little of the peel, and you are going to have to use a little butter. But time was not wasted when I made Julia Child's version, from Baking with Julia. And it was one of those foods which you could understand the reason for its survival, the reason it might appear as a dessert you would be unembarrassed to share with friends - how's that for "traditional American food" (by way of England and France no doubt)?

According to that cookbook, pg. 403 ("Not-Your-Usual Lemon Meringue Pie"), you simply whip up 4 large eggs and 1 cup sugar, and if you are trying to be minimalist, a big wire whisk is as good as a mixer (but it's a workout). You do this thing called "forming the ribbon" where the froth should be able to hold a little shape draping over itself (not in peaks though, that will never happen with the whites and yolks mixed together).

While whisking, juggle in (if using the whisk - otherwise just keep the motor running) 2/3 c. fresh lemon juice and the grated zest of a lemon.

You need to cook it over a pan of boiling water, in a second pan or bowl (like a double-boiler arrangement), whisking so that it cooks steadily and becomes thick and "custardlike", but don't worry, this takes very little longer than it would with My-T-Fine filling.

Taking it off the heat, you then break into the curd, piece by piece, a half a stick of unsalted butter cut up in 8, stirring each one in until it blends . It enriches the mix delightfully.

The curd should be poured into a waiting pie shell or else into a storage bowl which you cover with plastic right on the curd (to prevent forming a dry skin I guess). The Child cookbook says it can keep for a week in the fridge, but I've never tested that hypothesis. It was too delicious for that kind of waiting around. You can also make up the meringue in the recipe, using whatever crust you fancy. Or you can just enjoy it plain, like a rich lemon pudding.

There are four ingredients in this thing (if you count lemon peel and lemon juice as one): Eggs, sugar, lemon and butter. And depending on the fragrance of the lemon, it can verge on ambrosial. It's not something destined for a trash can, is it? Not if you didn't burn it (and you won't with the double boiler arrangement). No fail? Yes.

I really don't make this every day, but maybe that's the point. It's special. And isn't that what nostalgia is all about?

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