Those of us who choose to live in Maine are not supposed to complain about the winter. It’s considered bad form, almost like asking a lobsterman how many traps he has or saying “chowdah” when you clearly don’t have a Maine accent.
We moved here from New Jersey three years ago this month knowing full well that the winters would be longer, darker and possibly harsher, but any discomfort would be worth it for the gorgeous summers, clean air, lack of traffic and myriad other benefits of living in this special place.
In contrast to last year, when we had snowfall to rival Alaska, I’ve been calling this one “the winter-that-wasn’t that won’t end.” There’s been little snow, and stretches of frigid days maddeningly interrupted by bursts of almost spring-like weather — teasing me into thinking winter might have breathed its last, only to wake up the next morning to a grim, gray world with sleet coating everything in ice.
That was the scenario last Friday, when I had to be at a business breakfast by 7:30 a.m., but first had to slither down a treacherously glazed path to chisel off my car. I’m not a morning person on the best of days and was already exhausted, so you can imagine the miserable mood I was in by the time I reached the breakfast; afterwards, I called in sick, drove home and crawled back into bed for the rest of the day, getting up only when Ted called me to dinner. Harrumph.
In between naps, I searched online for real estate in warm places like Key West and St. John, determined that one day, we would be able to escape from February at least through April. (If you’re not familiar with Maine weather, we have no spring to speak of — when the azaleas and tulips bloom, it’s summer.)
Fortunately, we have a warm and bright house, with large windows letting in lots of sun, especially in the kitchen and adjacent living room (brightness was an absolute requirement when we were house hunting). The morning after my sick day, the ice had gone and the sky was a brilliant blue, although it was still chilly. Well rested, I was looking forward to my only real task of the day, making dessert for Easter Sunday — Nigella Lawson’s Lemon Meringue Cake.
With its baked-together layers of buttery-lemony cake and meringue, lemon curd sandwiched in between, the cake sings “spring” to me and is a perfect dessert after a big meal. I’ve made it many, many times, most notably for Fortunato Nicotra, chef of Lidia Bastianich’s flagship restaurant Felidia in New York City; we became friends with him and his wife Shelly after we wrote about him for (201) Magazine. Fortunato has cooked for the Pope, so when he raved about it at a dinner at our house in New Jersey, I felt I had reached baking nirvana.
Since you can buy good lemon curd, I’ve never made the cake with anything else. But partly because we had a surfeit of lemons in the fridge and mostly because I needed a project, this time I thought I’d make it. There are of course plenty of recipes out there for lemon curd — and I am more than capable of spending too much time thinking “Hmmm … maybe this one. No … what about that one?” — so I reached for an old friend: Helen Whitty’s “Fancy Pantry.”
Her lemon curd recipe makes 3 cups — perfect, since the cake only needed a half cup or so, I could keep some of the extra curd and give a jar to my mother, who loves it as I do. My new favorite way to eat it is on toast, slathered over a thin layer of almond butter.
Whether you use Whitty’s recipe or another one, be advised that making lemon curd requires a lot of stirring (at least 15 minutes, in my experience), which, if you’re in the mood for it, can be a kind of Zen-like activity. Put on your favorite music, pour yourself a cup of tea and stir away …
She instructs you to strain the finished curd through a fine sieve to remove the zest, but I didn’t; I like the extra boost of flavor and slightly more rustic texture – plus, if truth be told, I didn’t feel like fetching the sieve I would have needed from the basement.
I’m sure this will sound cliche, but it’s nevertheless true: The process helped my mood enormously, the cake was even better than usual, and the luscious, fragrant lemon curd brought sunny warmth to my winter-saddened soul.
- Enough fragrant, bright-skinned lemons (about 3) to yield 1 1/2 tablespoon of grated zest and 1/2 cup of strained juice (Minute Maid lemon juice, available in the freezer aisle, can make up any difference)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- Pinch of salt
- 4 egg yolks (save the egg whites and make these meringues )
- 1 whole egg
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
Adapted from "Fancy Panty" by Helen Whitty