While writing this profile on lemons, I asked a group of food writers, “What’s the quintessential lemon dessert?” As one would imagine, all the classics were suggested–lemon bars, lemon meringue pie, lemon pound cake, etc. But it was a writer from the UK who got my attention with a suggestion of lemon posset. I had never heard of it and immediately set out to learn more.
In it’s earliest form, posset was a popular medieval drink made from warmed sweetened milk that had been curdled with wine, ale or some other acidic agent. It may be difficult to understand the appeal, but eventually the milk was replaced by cream, and the ale and wine by lemon juice. What resulted was a rather luxurious dessert more akin to a custard than a nog. Posset fell from favor in the early 19th century, upstaged by egg custards and something with the equally peculiar name of syllabub, but has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
The expression “easy peasy, lemon squeezy” may have been the slogan of an old British detergent, but it is a fitting description of lemon posset. Few desserts are easier. The Wall Street Journal calls it a “pudding that practically makes itself.” Three simple ingredients–cream, sugar, and lemon juice–combine and through some magical food alchemy transform one another into a thick, rich, custardy dessert. It’s enough to capture the fascination of your inner food geek.
HOW IT WORKS
Remember Little Miss Muffet’s curds and whey? Well, when hot milk mixes with an acid, its two main proteins, casein and whey, react very differently. Casein begins to coagulate forming a solid mass, while the whey separates into a watery liquid. (Think cottage cheese.) It may not sound like much of a dessert by today’s standards, but when that same acid is mixed with heavy cream, the extra fat cells block the casein from forming large curds. Then, when the mixture has had sufficient time to cool, it sets into a custard-like texture without the aid of eggs or gelatin.
All food chemistry aside, what about the taste? Is lemon posset the quintessential lemon dessert? You’ll have to decide for yourself, but it’s fair to say that posset is to lemons what key lime pie is to key limes. Nothing short of lemon curd could pack more lemon flavor.
THE BASIC METHOD
Writing in The Guardian, Felicity Cloake appears to have perfected lemon posset. So I began working from her recipe. The biggest problem from the outset was that folks in the UK use double cream, which has somewhere between 43 and 48% milk fat and is all but non-existent in the U.S. In order to stop the casein from curdling into chunks, you need at least 25% milk fat. Heavy whipping cream is between 36-38% fat–more than enough to do the trick.
Most recipes call for mixing cream and caster sugar, heating it to a boil, and then adding the lemon juice, but like Cloake, I found I got a smoother texture by heating the lemon juice and sugar together to create something of a simple sugar. This method requires two sauce pans–one for the syrup and one for the milk, but it also allows me to use granulated sugar in place of caster (aka “superfine”) sugar; something I never seem to have on hand.
The set was inconsistent in early batches. Some would firm like a well-made custard, while others were loose like packaged pudding or greek yogurt; a problem I feared rooted back to the percentage of milk fat. I eventually realized that the longer I simmered the heavy cream, the firmer the set. Those extra minutes on the stove helped to reduce the liquid. Cooling the posset 20-30 minutes on the counter before refrigerating also helped.
- 2-3 lemons, preferably unwaxed
- ⅔ cup (125g) granulated sugar
- 2 cups (475ml) heavy cream
- Rinse, dry and zest one of the lemon. Slice and squeeze the zested lemon plus one other and measure 3 ounces (90ml) of lemon juice. If needed, use the third lemon.
- Combine the zest, juice and sugar in a small sauce pan and stir until blended. Cook over medium-low heat, until the sugar has completely dissolved, stirring constantly. Liquid should be transparent. Be sure to scrape down any sugar that collects on the side of the pan. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
- In a heavy medium sauce pan, gently bring the cream to a boil over a low heat stirring frequently to avoiding scalding and skimming. Allow to simmer for 3-4 minutes string occasionally.
- Remove from heat, and gently whisk the lemon syrup into the cream until well blended.
- Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the cream mixture into a bowl or glass measuring cup with enough capacity for 3 cups.
- Using a ladle or the spout of the measuring cup, divide the posset evenly into four custard dishes. Allow to cool on the countertop for 20-30 minutes, then refrigerate for 2-4 hours until firmly set. For longer storage, cover custard dishes with plastic wrap. Lemon posset is
- best if eaten within 48 hours.
Once you’ve tried the basic version, experiment by adding different spices and flavorings to your lemon posset. Cloake recommends adding a pinch each of ginger and nutmeg in deference to posset’s medieval origins. This adds a warm, homey feel to the dessert–perfect if you’re serving it around the holidays. If you want to be a little racier, try ginger and cayenne pepper for a delightful touch of heat. Vanilla bean is a popular option. The seeds from a half a been are all you need. Just stir the spices into the milk before heating. (Note: If you intend to use extracts for flavoring, add it to the syrup and not the cream.)
Other citrus fruits work well too. For orange posset, use two teaspoons (packed) of orange zest (about 1 orange) in place of the lemon zest; 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice + 3 tablespoons lemon juice; and reduce the sugar to ½ cup (100g). Add some fresh vanilla bean (½ pod should be enough), and you’ve got a Creamsicle posset.
For lime posset, replace the lemon zest and juice proportionately with that of limes. Place some crushed graham crackers in the bottom of the custard dishes for a quick, easy alternative to key lime pie.
You can experiment with other acidic foods as well. As long as the have a pH of 4.7 or lower, you should have enough acid to curdle the cream. I’m still devising a means for lowering the pH of espresso in hopes of creating a latte posset. I’ll let you know what I find.
Slightly tart fruits, jams and compotes complement posset and can actually help to cut the richness of the cream. Layering them in a wine glass makes a nice presentation. I offer this second recipe to demonstrate, and welcome you to share your own combinations in the comments below.
- ½ pint (275ml) raspberries
- 3 tbs sugar
- 1 tsp Chambord (optional)
- 2 shortbread cookies, crushed
- Lemon posset, prepared with ½ vanilla bean
- 4 shortbread cookies, small enough to fit inside glasses
- 4 [url href=”http://toriavey.com/how-to/2011/03/how-to-make-a-lemon-or-lime-twist/” target=”_blank”]lemon twists[/url]
- In a small sauce pan, combine the raspberries,sugar and Chambord. Stir until the berries are coated with the sugar. Over medium heat, stir and break up some of the berries leaving some whole. Continue to heat until sugar has melted and the juices begin to thicken, about 7-10 minutes.
- Put two tablespoons of raspberry compote into each of four medium-size wine glasses. On top of the raspberry sauce place 1 tablespoon of the crushed shortbread. Place the glasses in the freezer for 25-30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the lemon posset per the basic recipe instructions. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean and add to the cream before heating. Allow the strained posset to cool for 20 minutes.
- Remove the wine glasses from the freezer. Using a spoon or small ladle, carefully add the posset to the glasses, taking care not to get any on the inside rim.
- Refrigerate posset for 2-4 hours until fully set.
- Just before serving, insert a shortbread cooking into each glass and garnish the rim with a lemon twist.
Walkers Shortbread Fingers
We recommend Scotish-made Walkers Shortbread Fingers for our Lemon-Vanilla Posset with Raspberry Compote. They are widely available in grocery stores throughout the U.S. and Europe, and their narrow shape fits perfectly into the mouth of a win glass.