“It’s like a little jar of sunshine,” says writer and keen lemon curd maker Sophie Hanson, and in just seven words, she’s summed up so much of what fans love about this simple preserve. Its golden-yellow colour is so cheery; it’s sweet-sharp tang brings a touch of brightness to even the coldest of winter mornings; and for some, it’s just a wee bit like a hug from your grandma.
Lemon butter or lemon curd?
When we started thinking about the secrets of making a really good, thick, tart, smooth lemon curd (no bits of egg white!) for this article, we soon found ourselves doing something almost as delightful as slathering generous dollops of the stuff on fresh bread: disappearing down the wonderful rabbit hole of recipe history, and pondering the many names this preserve is known by.
Australia’s affection for this citrus spread probably comes in part from our colonial ties to England, where variations appeared in recipe books as early as the 1700s, and where it remains a popular preserve.
Over the years, this mixture of lemon, eggs, butter and sugar has been called lemon curd, lemon butter and lemon cheese, and from our research, while there is some variation in recipe – some use whole eggs, some use yolks; some put everything in together right from the start, some don’t – in Australia there’s been no consistent use of a particular name for a particular variation*.
A sample, for those who also love this kind of rabbit hole: A 1984 edition of The Commonsense Cookery Book, found in many schools and home kitchens in years past (“more than a million copies sold”), uses egg yolk for Lemon Cheese, but notes that a whole egg “may be beaten and used if liked”. Skipping back a few decades, in a pamphlet of recipes called The West Goulburn Churchwomen’s Union Book of Favourite Recipes, published in 1956, a recipe for Lemon Butter from Mrs R. Taunton runs directly above a recipe for Lemon Cheese from Mrs Y. Croker. Mrs Taunton uses whole eggs, and mixes everything right from the start, while Mrs Croker uses egg yolks, and melts butter with sugar before adding eggs, then lemon juice. In Tested Recipes, a booklet published by the South Kew Baptist Ladies’ Guide in 1931**, there’s a triple offering, all of them in a section on cake fillings: two versions of Lemon Butter (whole eggs in both), and a Lemon Filling (likewise).
“My grandmothers both called it lemon butter while lemon curd seems to be more widely used these days,” says Sophie Hansen, who has published several recipes for lemon curd and variations on her blog Local is Lovely, including lemon verbena curd and lemon and apple curd.
“But now I really think about it, lemon butter is a much more apt name as the recipe contains so much of the stuff! And it’s not a curd at all.”
And what of “lemon honey”? While most recipes for this less-common variation use honey instead of sugar, it’s not always the case: the EWA Cookery Book, published in 1936, uses sugar (and, for the record, egg yolks) in its Lemon Honey recipe.
The secret is in the stirring
While many of those historical recipes assumed the reader would be familiar with what they were making and not in need of much detail (even, in some cases, with no reference to heating the ingredients), those recipes and their modern descendants mostly have one thing in common: the instruction to stir well.
“I think the key to not getting white bits in your curd is to really keep the temperature nice and low and to whisk constantly. The white bits are simply pieces of cooked egg and they are a bit of a bummer to be honest as they mean you lose that lovely smooth texture. And when it comes to getting the recipe to set, I think time and a good even temperature is the main thing. It really does take longer than you think, a good 20 minutes is normal for me!” says Sophie Hansen.
“Remember that it should set further in the fridge but don’t stop cooking it until the curd really does thicken nicely in the bowl and coat the back of a wooden spoon, leaving a clear line when you run your finger up it.”
The other key point, as BakeProof columnist Anneka Manning says in her recipe for lemon buttermilk pound cake with lemon curd, is to avoid boiling the mixture.
And if you do end up with a few flecks of egg white, or a not entirely smooth curd? “Don’t worry if there are lumps – they prove it’s homemade,” says Gourmet farmer Matthew Evans, who uses his lemon curd recipe in his apple and lemon curd shortcake.
Another tip comes from My Swedish Kitchen host Rachel Khoo, who makes a lush lemon curd to use in her layered lemon and yoghurt cake, which has layers of lemon cake, lemon curd and cream cheese icing. When zesting your lemons, "you really just want to get the top layer because that's where all the flavour is. Don't grate in the white part, because that has a bit of bitterness to it," she says.
Changing up the citrus juice, and in some recipes, zest, used is one way to vary your curd. “You can make a curd out of so many different fruit, lemon curd, lemon and lime, orange … blood orange is amazing, gives great colour,” says Irish cook Rachel Allen, who makes a grapefruit curd in Rachel Allen: All Things Sweet.
You can also add other flavours to a basic lemon curd.
In Queensland, Indigenous chef and teacher Dale Chapman, a Kooma, Yuwaalaraay woman from central Queensland and widely respected bush food expert, makes a bush lemon and finger lime curd, served up in individual tarts for catering. Chapman, who is a director of First Food Co, which sells bush food products as well as offering catering, stirs the finger lime pearls into cooked and cooled lemon butter. As well as adding flavour, she says, the pearls really brighten up the butter.
"We use the old, strong bush lemons, but you can make it with anything. I've made it with lemon aspen juice, along with the lemon juice," she says - she puts the lemon aspen, a tart native fruit mostly grown in northern Queensland, which can be a bit woody she says, through a juicer.
And her tips for lemon butter success? "I tend to bring it slowly up to hear, and always stirring, and keeping an eye on it. It's just one of those things you have to watch. The key is to make sure you have everything in place, so you don't need to walk away, and have to the time to do it," she says.
Lots of other flavours work well too. Love lemongrass? Try Rachel Khoo’s lemongrass curd. Plenty of passionfruit? Try Sophie Hansen’s lemon and passionfruit curd (with a plain lemon curd option, too), from her utterly heart-warming book A Basket by The Door (Murdoch Books, RRP $39.99), full of recipes for sharing with others.
“I have tried many recipes over the years but have landed on the one in my book as my favourite - I just love that it uses whole eggs and find it sets well for me every time,” she tells us.
Another twist is to make a fruit puree and either add it to the mixture while cooking or swirl it through the cooked mixture.
“Rhubarb curd is delicious enjoyed in the way you would enjoy a lemon curd: with meringues and cream or just drizzled over yoghurt or ice cream,” says Allen, as she makes a lavender sponge with rhubarb curd in the “Afternoon Tea” episode of All Things Sweet. She cooks rhubarb and sugar (no added water, because she wants a thick puree) until soft, pushes the fruit mixture through a sieve, then adds the puree to melted butter along with sugar and eggs. And just as with lemon curd, “stir it constantly over a low heat till it's thickened. Don't let it boil the eggs will scramble really easily if it gets too hot,” she says.
If peaches are in season, try Beth Kirby’s peach and rosewater curd, made with pureed fresh peaches, and served up in tart shells, topped with basil cream.
You can also add mashed banana to the mix while cooking.
For a pretty tart filling, try swirling berry puree through cooked and cooled lemon curd.
How long will it last?
If you plan to keep it for more than a few days, do as Matthew Evans suggests in his recipe and sterilise your jars before filling them.
While the authors of Calling All Cooks, published by the South Australian Gas Company in 1941 (one last report from the rabbit hole!) optimistically say their Lemon Cheese “will keep indefinitely”, we’d suggest several weeks is more realistic. CWA-prize-winning cook Merle Parrish says her passionfruit curd will keep for eight weeks in the fridge. But let’s be honest, for those who love lemon butter/curd/cheese/honey/call it what you will, it’s going to be all gone well before that, is it?
* There is another, even longer, rabbit hole beckoning those interested in the difference between fruit cheese and fruit butter. Aside from the kind of fruity variations on lemon butter mentioned above, these are usually terms for preserves or pastes made with fruit and sugar - no eggs or butter. A “cheese” is generally thicker than a "butter".
Think of this as a light chiffon cake-like version of lemon meringue pie. This recipe was passed down to us from a friend over a decade ago, and we adjusted the curd to be extra zingy! These choux pastries are filled with lemon curd, dipped in lemon icing and topped with candied zest. These little jars of golden lemon curd make beautiful thank you gifts or look for decorative jars and sell them at your next local fete. This is the dinner party version of our lime curd pyramid. It is based on a traditional French lemon meringue tart. Our version uses limes to give the dish an exotic flavour. Inside is hidden a coriander jelly which cuts the bulk and sweetness of the meringue. The coriander also hints at the limes’ affinity with South East Asian and also Mexican food. This dessert is best served fresh, but is fine the next day and also freezes well.
Think of this as a light chiffon cake-like version of lemon meringue pie.
This recipe was passed down to us from a friend over a decade ago, and we adjusted the curd to be extra zingy!
These choux pastries are filled with lemon curd, dipped in lemon icing and topped with candied zest.
These little jars of golden lemon curd make beautiful thank you gifts or look for decorative jars and sell them at your next local fete.
This is the dinner party version of our lime curd pyramid. It is based on a traditional French lemon meringue tart. Our version uses limes to give the dish an exotic flavour. Inside is hidden a coriander jelly which cuts the bulk and sweetness of the meringue. The coriander also hints at the limes’ affinity with South East Asian and also Mexican food. This dessert is best served fresh, but is fine the next day and also freezes well.