Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer Lovin' (with Raspberry Curd)

I have to confess, I don’t think I’ll ever be a Southern California girl. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be able to run outside in February without worrying about snow, ice and freezing temperatures. And even though Riverside gets its share of blistering heat in the summer (it is the desert, after all), the air is blessedly dry (and Los Angeles, where we’ll be moving in a few weeks, is actually quite a bit cooler since it is on the coast).

But still, although California has its advantages - not least among them being that it is the home of my boyfriend, who I love dearly - for me the East Coast will always trump the West in one important way (besides the fact that my entire family lives there): it has seasons.

Growing up in a place with four distinct seasons, it was startling to me to leave New York in October, just when fall was beginning to creep in – with its cool nights and still-warm days, its golden afternoons and the smell of wood-smoke and falling leaves just barely starting to perfume the air – and land in Southern California smack back in the middle of summer, or so it felt like. The weeks leading up to Christmas were a bit surreal for me, as all the usual decorations made their appearance right on schedule, but the weather remained determinedly warm, the sun shining brightly accept for a few days here and there of gray skies and drizzle (which generally sent the locals into a panic; seriously, there were warnings on the radio about less than half an inch of rain!). The days were growing shorter, but that was about the only sign of winter’s approach. It was actually refreshing to go spend a few days after Christmas in New York and Colorado, just to get a good dose of the cold, snowy weather I always associate with that time of year.

Of course, when forced to endure three months or more of winter - as I was for the four years I attended Binghamton University in upstate New York, with its seemingly unending bouts of crappy weather - I complained like everyone else. Bitterly, even: ever try running for an hour in 13-degree weather, on steep back roads slicked in ice? Not so much fun. But that just made the arrival of spring all the sweeter.

And while East Coast summers can be fairly crappy themselves – is it really possible to have 100% humidity with no actual rain? It’s like trying to breath underwater – they have some things to offer that California doesn’t. Fireflies for instance: when I run later in the evening to avoid the heat, I end up back in my front yard at dusk, just after the sun goes down, and just as the fireflies come out to begin their nightly dance. An avid bug hater, I still have always loved fireflies; they speak to me of long summer nights, running barefoot across the cool lawn with my cousins and sister, catching the little bugs and cupping them in our hands to watch them glow.

Another summertime backyard staple, one I sorely miss in Riverside, is raspberries. 

We have canes growing in both our front and backyard, with more scattered throughout the surrounding neighborhood. I have been eagerly waiting for the berries to ripen, and the other day I finally went raspberry picking, starting with my own bushes and then foraging through the nearby streets, scanning the brush-filled, unclaimed plots of land between houses, places where the right mix of sun and shade have allowed the raspberry canes to flourish.

The berries are tricky to get, not just because of the thorns, but because the birds like them as much as I do; actually possibly more so, since they scarf them down before the berries even have a chance to ripen. There’s usually plenty for everyone, though, especially since not all the berries on a bush get ripe all at once; I’ll be visiting the most prolific raspberry-growing areas all month long.

The berries from these bushes are wild berries, which means they’re much smaller than their cultivated cousins, more prone to be tart rather than sweet if picked just a bit too early, and they occasionally come with little insects clinging tight (never carelessly toss a berry into your mouth without inspecting it carefully first, for this very reason).

But if you are a diligent and sharp-eyed forager (and are unafraid of possibly trespassing on other people’s property; but really, good raspberries shouldn’t go to waste should they?), you will be rewarded with a basket of little red jewels.

They are delicate little things, perfect for popping into your mouth while still warm from the sun. That’s really the best way to enjoy them, but when I came home from a foraging expedition with an entire 32-oz yogurt container full of raspberries, I realized I may have gone overboard. Not even I, raspberry fiend that I am, can consume that many berries. These wild berries are much less sturdy than the cultivated ones and so wouldn’t do too well in a baked good like a cake or muffin, but I couldn’t stand to see them all go to waste. So, I decided to turn my haul into raspberry curd.

Lemon curd is a pretty standard dessert item, and I’ve seen other citrus curds before too, but raspberry curd never even crossed my mind until I stumbled upon a recipe for it on the absolutely lovely blog, Tea & Cookies, by Seattelite Tara (aka Tea). Really, if you’ve never read this site, please go do so now, her writing is wonderful. She also knows a thing or two about berry picking, as apparently Marin County, California, where she grew up, is practically overrun by blackberry bushes. Hmmm, summer berry picking without the high humidity? Maybe California has something to offer after all…

Raspberry Curd
Adapted from Tea & Cookies

The original recipe called for 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) of butter, but I chose not to add it, as I wanted as little extra ingredients as possible to interfere with the flavor of the wild raspberries. That being said, be warned that if you use wild raspberries, they are likely to be quite tart. If you’d like to temper that tartness or just want a richer mouthfeel, add the butter in with the fruit, sugar etc. in the first step. Also, when you first strain the curd, it will look a fairly unappetizing brownish-pink color, rather than the beautiful deep red in the photos on Tea’s blog. Don’t despair – it will turn a much prettier shade in the fridge (though mine never got developed the lovely color of Tea’s). And no matter what color it ends up, it will taste delicious!

12 ounces raspberries [if you’re lucky they’ll be wild berries you picked yourself, but if not two baskets from the store should do the trick]
1 cup sugar (more as desired)
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice [please, please buy a lemon and use fresh juice; the bottled stuff just doesn’t compare]
4 tablespoons butter [optional; see recipe headnote]
¼ teaspoon salt
4 eggs

In medium saucepan, add raspberries, sugar, lemon juice, salt, and butter if using. Heat on medium, whisking as the berries begin to break down. Cook until sugar is completely dissolved and fruit has softened.

In a separate bowl [I used a large measuring bowl with a spout to make pouring easier], whisk the eggs. Stirring continually, slowly add ½ cup of berry mixture to the eggs; whisk to incorporate [This is called tempering, to prevent the eggs from scrambling when you add them to the hot berry mixture. As you can see by the white flecks in a couple of the photos below, my first egg-tempering venture was not entirely successful. If this happens to you, don’t worry, just press on; you will be straining the mixture later.].

Whisking continuously, slowly add the eggs back into the berry mixture. Stir constantly over medium heat until the mixture thickens slightly. Do not let boil, though some small bubbles around the edges are fine.

Taste and add more sugar if desired [This will depend entirely on how sweet your berries are and how tart you like your curd; I liked mine quite tart, though not mouth-puckering, so didn’t add any more sugar.].

Place mesh strainer over large bowl. Pour half the raspberry mixture into strainer, pressing on solids with a spatula or spoon to force curd through. Discard solids in strainer and repeat with second half of mixture [This is likely to take a few minutes; you’ll want to really make sure to press out all of the curd, because it will be just too tasty to bear wasting even a drop.].

Refrigerate curd until ready to use [I put a sheet of plastic wrap on the surface of the curd to prevent a skin from forming, but you don’t have to if you don’t care about that. Also, this curd never firmed up in the way some lemon curds do, but remained more the consistency of a thick sauce. I’m not sure if I didn’t cook it long enough or it this is the way it’s supposed to turn out, but it still tasted wonderful].

 The raspberry curd can be kept refrigerated for about a week, or frozen for up to a year. Tea notes that it is good on pancakes, toast, or other baked goods (I’m thinking scones here), or stirred into plain yogurt. I bet it would make a great frosting, when mixed with some cream cheese, for a summery layer cake as well, or folded into whipped cream along with some fresh berries for a pretty pink mousse. A plain old spoon works nicely, too, of course.

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