Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You Say Sherbet I say Sherbert: We All Say Yum

I love the idea of hostess gifts. It's so retro. I imagine a scene from the 1960s with a woman answering the door in her billowing hostess pants outfit to receive a bottle of wine or flowers from her guests.

I have received some interesting hostess gifts including a bottle of my favorite wine with the date of the dinner party inscribed in glittering silver pen. Another friend brought a box of note cards featuring the vibrant pastel pastry paintings of Wayne Thiebaud.

Recently I received a very simple hostess gift. A friend bought a gift bag filled with Meyer lemons from her garden. As I set the bag aside, I was already thinking about what I could bake with them as the main ingredient.

Since lemons last for quite awhile on the kitchen counter, I didn't feel rushed to use them as I would another edible gift.

Citrus fruit has always seemed so exotic to me -- even after all these years of living in California. I don't think I had tasted a lemon or lime until I moved here as a young adult. Even oranges were considered exotic -- every Christmas each of us kids would find an orange in the toe of our Christmas stockings. Sounds very Little House on the Prairie now!

I certainly had never heard of a Meyer lemon. It still seems amazing to be able to open your back door and have lemons, limes or oranges available for the picking.

Winter is peak time for Meyer lemons in California. Meyer lemons were brought to the U.S. from China by agricultural explorer (what a great title) Frank Meyer in the early 1900s. The Meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and a sweet orange, became a popular tree to grow in California until the 1940s when it became responsible for a virus that was killing all citrus trees. Most of the Meyer lemon trees were destroyed and didn't make a comeback until a virus-free selection was developed in the 1950s.

Compared to its lumpier cousin, a Meyer lemon has a smooth, thin skin and is almost a canary yellow.

Its reputation as a favorite among foodies was cemented when it was popularized by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse restaurant in the 1970s during the California cuisine revolution. Lindsey Shere, the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse was known to use Meyer lemons in her desserts. Her Meyer lemon ice cream was a favorite of diners.

Reading about Lindsey Shere inspired me to use Meyer lemons in some sort of frozen delight. I could use a "lighter" dessert after these past months of cakes and cookies.

It seemed fitting then to use a recipe by Shere's protege -- pastry chef and ice cream master David Lebovitz.

I decided ice cream was still a bit too rich for what I had in mind but his recipe for sherbet in his book, The Perfect Scoop, sounded just right.

It also made me nostalgic.

As a kid growing up in Indiana, my mom used sherbet as bribery to get us to visit the dentist. I know it is a bit ironic to use a sugary treat in connection with a dentist visit but I think my mom thought it was a healthier choice.

After the dentist we headed to Rexall -- the corner drugstore for cones of sherbet. I asked for either green (we never called it lime) or orange.

And in the area of Indiana where we lived, we pronounced it sherBERT as in Bert and Ernie.

You don't hear much about sherbet in California but its close relative, sorbet, seems to be a standard dessert item on almost all restaurant menus.

In The Perfect Scoop, Lebovitz has this to say about sorbet vs. sherbet, "The difference between sorbet and a sherbet can be elusive. Technically, sorbets are never made with milk or cream, and sherbets often have milk or buttermilk added. But these definitions are not set in stone, and I've seen the terms used interchangeably, even by professionals."

Using my Meyer lemons, I adapted Lebovitz's Lemon Sherbet recipe.

The resulting sherbet was fragrant and light -- a refreshing way to begin a new year no matter how you pronounce it.

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