The thing about summer is that I want to cook in a way that leaves me turning pages in the hammock until the very last minute. There will be plenty of time for project meals this winter — the kind that make sense when dark descends upon us at 4 o’clock. Once we get there, taking on complicated dishes will seem like a good idea for filling up the long evenings and keeping us warm to boot. But let’s not think about that just yet.
Today, I’m focused on the fact that our niece, Victoria, 17 years old and fresh from Great Books Camp, where she’s been reading and writing poetry, is en route with her parents. Victoria is all about desserts, so I need an idea. It’s hot today, sticky-steamy hot. Using the grill will keep the house cool for most of our supper preparation. But what about dessert? I don’t want to turn the oven on, so pies are out. Ice cream is never a bad idea, but that’s undeniably a project in my old-fashioned churn, and the hammock beckons.
We could go for utter simplicity and split open a fat watermelon — one of summer’s true joys. But I want to serve something nice for Victoria. She’s always lived far away from us, so we don’t get to see her often. This visit, postponed because of the pandemic, is special. Dessert should match.
I find dessert a challenge in all seasons because, to be honest, I’m not a great lover of sweets. After supper, pass me a wheel of ripe Eidolon from Grey Barn Creamery in Chilmark and a dish of apple slices and I’m content.
I page through an old cookbook — they save me every time. This one is English Provincial Cooking by Elisabeth Ayrton, which I found at Herridge Books in Wellfleet. In it, I come across a recipe for what appears to be an impossibly simple custard: cream, heated through with sugar, then both flavored and thickened with lemon.
The flavors of citrus and summer go together in my mind, and cool, smooth custard seems just the level of fancy I was thinking of. Besides, I swoon for the name of this one: lemon posset. Posset. Who’s ever heard of posset? It sounds like something little and adorable. Like hedgehog. Or tipple.
Apparently, before it became my new favorite summer dessert, pre-16th century, posset was a hot drink made of milk curdled with ale or wine and drunk either as a delicacy or a remedy. I’m glad it continued to evolve.
Topped with macerated strawberries and served on the candlelit screened porch, my lemon posset was a success, I think. By the time the posset was passed, we had been together for a little while, so we were less awkward — you know, the way one sometimes is with people one loves but doesn’t get to see too often. The wine may have helped. But it seemed like, over dessert, the conversation came more easily, and we heard all about Victoria’s poetry and her painting and her plans for the future. It was one of those summer evenings specially made for connecting, for remembering when, for imagining the great things that lie ahead.
If there’s anything hard about this recipe, it’s believing that it can become so velvety without the addition of egg yolks or cornstarch or gelatin. The cream is simmered with sugar and strips of lemon zest for 5 minutes or so. The zest sparks up the lemon flavor and the simmering concentrates the proteins and fats in the cream. It’s the acidity of the lemon juice, added next, that gets those proteins to come together. Don’t think of reducing the fat here — the same acidity would make milk curdle.
Strained into little cups, the possets set in the refrigerator. I make them in the morning, and they are perfect by supper, but they could also be prepared the day before. The custard is light and sweet-tart. The recipe makes just enough for six small servings to round out a meal. If you have larger or more servings in mind, it is easily doubled.
So, head to the garden, take a swim, turn the page, or stay in the hammock until the very last minute. The posset will be ready when you are.
Makes 6 small servings
For the custard
2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
Zest cut in strips from 2 lemons
A pinch of salt
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the fruit topping
1 cup sliced fruit — whatever is freshest
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
In a medium saucepan, stir together the cream, sugar, lemon zest, and salt over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring continuously until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer until the mixture thickens just a little, about 5 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Allow to cool about 20 minutes. After cooling, stir and then strain the custard into a large measuring cup. Discard the zest and any lumps. Pour the custard into four medium or six small bowls and allow to set in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least 3 hours, or overnight.
For the topping, mix the sliced fruit and sugar in a small bowl and let stand for at least half an hour to allow the fruit to give up its juices. Once the custards are set, top each with a spoonful of fruit.