The writing of essayist and novelist Laurie Colwin has been one of the greatest influences on my cooking. Her warm, practical recipes, inspired by friends, literature, and dinner parties, are among my chief kitchen treasures. But there was one intriguing and old-fashioned recipe that I came back to time and time again — it sounded so delicious, and yet I couldn't find the right occasion to try it. Well, now I have. I've made Laurie Colwin and Jane Grigson's lemon honeycomb mould, and I'm here to report that it's delicious and amazing.
In More Home Cooking, one of Colwin's collections of essays on food and cooking, she writes about Jell-O and other commercial gelatin desserts, and how she was disappointed by their artificial flavorings and taste. But her small daughter yearned for wobbly, brightly-colored gelatin desserts, and so Colwin started making them from fruit juice and plain, unflavored gelatin.
The crowning achievement, in her daughter's eyes, came with this recipe: A British classic taken from the pages of Jane Grigson's Good Things. Colwin describes this multi-layered, lemony gelatin this way: "...a cap of clear lemon jelly, then a thin band of opaque cream jelly shading off a honeycombed spongy base which makes a light crinkling noise as it’s eaten."
To me, this sounded irresistible. I love gelatins and puddings of all kinds, and this fresh, lemony gelatin sounded just right.
This simple dessert begins with a basic custard. You combine egg yolks, cream, milk, sugar, and gelatin and cook until they begin to thicken. Lemon juice is stirred in at this point (it doesn't curdle the dairy because the milk and cream have been stabilized by the eggs). Then you whisk egg whites until they are stiff and fold them into the warm custard. The mixture will look goopy and fluffy at the same time. It's poured into small cups or a larger pudding mold and left to set in the refrigerator.
When you unmold or scoop out the pudding, you will find a base layer of thick lemon gelatin, and a top layer of fluffy, airy lemon mousse, cloudlike in the mouth (it does indeed "crinkle" — delightful!). The taste is very light and barely sweet; it tastes like real lemon, not lemon flavoring. It's refreshing and delicious, and perfect with just a small dollop of unsweetened whipped cream on top.
I made it in little cups for Easter brunch, and since I had some leftover custard, I also made one small bowlful that I unmolded on a cake plate. I served it alongside these Pistachio Shortbread cookies from Epicurious.
This was just such a delightful dessert — refreshing and lighter, after a big meal, as well as different and unexpected. I would so rather eat this than cake, after a big dinner. And it proves, yet again, Colwin's impeccable taste.
Serves 6 to 8. Lightly adapted from Jane Grigson and Laurie Colwin.
3 large eggs, separated
2 lemons, zested and juiced
3 teaspoons plain unflavoured gelatin
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 cup milk (at least 2% fat)
In a 2-quart heavy saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks, lemon zest, gelatin, sugar and cream. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and warm gently. Meanwhile, warm the milk in the microwave or in another saucepan until it is hot but not boiling. Whisk into the egg yolk mixture.
Cook the egg yolk and milk mixture for 5 to 10 minutes over medium-low heat, whisking frequently. Heat the custard until it reaches a temperature between 170° and 180°F — don't let it boil or go over 185°F! The custard should coat the back of a spoon. When it reaches this point, set it aside for 5 minutes to cool. Stir in the lemon juice.
Using a stand mixer or hand beaters, beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. When they make stiff peaks that stand straight up, slowly pour the hot custard into the bowl and fold everything together with a large spatula. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes.
Divide the mixture among 8 small glasses or wineglasses, or pour it into a medium-sized bowl (spray it lightly first with cooking spray). Cover the dishes and refrigerate for at least 2 hours for small glasses, and overnight for a full bowl. Top with a touch of whipped cream.
To unmould the large mould, run a thin knife around the edge, dip the mould quickly into hot water and invert it onto a plate. Serves 8.
Note: Of course you should use fresh, pastured eggs if you can, since the whites are barely cooked. My guests and I suffered no ill effects from this, but if you are extremely wary about eating raw or undercooked eggs, then this is probably not the best recipe for you.
• More on Laurie Colwin: Good For You, Yet Delicious: The Short Stories (and Cooking) of Laurie Colwin
(Images: Faith Durand)