Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Lemon and lard: a match made in heaven?

Monday’s TOIL (time off in lieu) brought with it the opportunity for a spot of culinary endeavour.

And it started with a pleasantly lazy breakfast: fried bread and eggs – cooked experimentally for me – in lard.

Was ever there such a dirty word?

Back in February, Oliver Thring discussed that much maligned substance in his weekly Guardian column.

It was just at a time when I was starting to pick up some information surrounding the demonisation of animal fats in our diet and piece two and two together, and one of the things that hit me was just what very negative ideas I had about some fats.

Okay, not goose fat or duck fat perhaps, but that's because of the glow of Frenchness they have. But lard is so very northern; so very lumpen and unsophisticated, isn't it?

Look at the advert here and imagine that sort of an advertising campaign now.

We've been hoodwinked, you and I, into seeing lard – and other fats, including butter – as bad.

However, although I’ve barely used it since I read that article in February, there was some in the fridge.

Jennifer McLagen’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes is a book that’s well worth thumbing through. Not just for the recipes – although the salted butter caramel tart that I’ve made thus far is utterly scrummy – but perhaps particularly for what else is included on the pages.

Part history, part science, McLagen looks at the forgotten health benefits of animal fats. Personally, I had no idea, for instance, just how many nutrients such fats included, having been convinced that saturated fats as a whole contained essentially ‘empty’ calories.

She even goes on to explain the molecular differences between different fats.

Now all this might seem a bit pointless for most of us, but it makes for valuable education when you’ve grown up pretty much alongside that process of demonisation.

Setting aside the health issue and diet myths though, McLagen also makes clear the role that fats play in taste – and also the suitability of certain fats for cooking.

Lard, as it happens, is very good to cook with because it’s so stable.

My fried bread was beautifully crisp, while the eggs were lusciously smooth, cooked beautifully and tasting wonderful. A breakfast that left me very happily sated.

But I’d also been wondering what else to do on the kitchen front and, given the egg whites remaining from Saturday’s culinary exploits (lemon gelato) had decided that this would be the perfect time to make my first attempt at meringue. And in keeping with the taste theme of recent days, I was contemplating a lemon meringue pie.

An internal debate then followed over which recipe to use: go for the simplicity of Delia or the greater complexity of Michel Roux?

I decided that it would be pastry from Roux’s book – but with lard substituted for some of the butter, as per Delia.

The filling and topping would be straight from Roux, which would mean making an Italian meringue – in other words, creating a syrup (including liquid gelatin) and adding this, at a specific temperature, to the whipped egg whites. But okay – I’m not a kitchen scaredy cat any more. I can do complicated things – and I have a jam thermometer.

The pastry veered close to disaster and was a nightmare to roll, as it was so sticky. That, I suspect, was partly because I’d let the fats get too warm before mixing. Fortunately, I had enough to make a second effort to roll and line the tin – and it just about worked.

Then, being a dipstick – and slightly frazzled by this juncture – I forgot to turn the temperature of the oven down from what was required to blind bake the pastry to what was required to cook the filled tart.

I realised about 40 minutes into a 1 hour 20 minute cook, when a glance in the oven showed something that had a rather unexpectedly brown hue on top. Since it was already set to the touch, I whacked the oven off completely and left it in to cool with the oven for a further 20 minutes or so, before bringing it out and, after another spell, removing it from the flan dish.

To compound matters, I then managed to stick a finger into the filling. Still, at least that proved that it was cooked – and still edible.

So meringue will have to wait for another day – it didn’t seem worth the effort after all that. I sprinkled caster sugar on top and simply caramelised that with my blow torch.

Remarkably for something that you think must be inherently fragile, it survived and proved edible. The filling is light as a feather and very fresh. The pastry was crisp and tasty.

There are questions about much modern lard, in that most of it is hydrogenated. But then again, McLagen makes the case – and gives the instructions – for rendering your own. It's not difficult, and it does mean a greater level of control over what you are cooking with and eating. I am seriously tempted to try.

But in the meantime, who knew that lemons and lard could make such a marriage – even given the hitches at the wedding?

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