By SHANNON WATKINS
Oh, Lord, they just called, and they’re on their way over. They’ll be here in two hours. Or an hour. Or half an hour. You know, your second cousins/former co-workers/friends from your old church/in-laws from three counties over, stopping in after Christmas. WAY after Christmas. You couldn’t possibly turn them down, and they’re bringing you “a little something” and you don’t have a thing in the world to give them.
You don’t have any stray regiftable items lying around that could plausibly pass for something they’d need or want (or be able to regift themselves), there’s no time for cookies, you’re flat out of cocoa for brownies and there was a stray poundcake a coworker gave you, but iit’s two weeks old and down to a last lingering slice. Now what?
First of all, go find a cute little Mason jar, about the size of a regular salsa jar or so. If you don’t have one, you might have to resort to an actual salsa jar (or something like it.) If you know a clever, crafty way to decorate the lid of one so as to obscure the brand name, and scrub off the label so it’s not immediately obvious that your lovely, thoughtful gift came by way of an idly-purchased snack accompaniment, go for it. I freely admit I’ve never mastered that sort of thing. Also, make sure there’s no lingering odor of other food.
Now, as to your gift: lemon curd is what you’re going to give them, which is easy to make as long as you can pay attention for a few minutes, and is terrifically classy without costing much at all.
The name, admittedly, sounds kind of gross if you’ve never encountered it before, as if it has the texture of cottage cheese, but it doesn’t; it sometimes goes by “lemon jelly” but it’s not clear and quivery like grape jelly, either. Curd is custardy and remarkably like lemon meringue pie filling. You spread it on toast, or biscuits, or scones, and it’s insanely rich and sweet and delicious.
You have lemons, of course, because of all the iced tea everybody’s drinking over the holidays, and at least three eggs, and some butter knocking around in the fridge, and of course there’s sugar, so haul all of that out, along with a bowl and a whisk and a small saucepan, and your grater.
¾ cup of sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
6 Tbsps. cold butter
Probably your butter is in stick form, so chop 6 individual tablespoons off it (the wrapper is usually marked to show how big a tablespoon is) and put those back in the fridge until you need to add them. Zest a couple of large lemons and squeeze out the juice into a measuring cup; you’ll probably need more to equal 1/3 cup of juice. And no, that might not be an exact tablespoon of zest, but it’s close enough and gives you lots of flavor, which is all that matters. Beat the eggs well and toss in the sugar, juice and zest. Put over low heat and cook, whisking or stirring constantly, until it thickens. After the first five minutes of cooking, you can raise the heat slightly.
Once it’s thick, take it off the heat, keep whisking or stirring, and add a tablespoon of butter at a time until it melts in, or do what I do and dump them all in at once. They’ll help cool it down. Squish it through a mesh strainer into a small bowl and put it in the fridge to cool further.
Now your guests are here, wreathed in smiles and good cheer, hugging you and asking how your family is and handing you a present you have to admit, within the deepest recesses of yourself, you’d never have picked out on your own, like a pair of bedroom slippers made from hollowed out fruitcakes or a snuggie woven of recycled poodle hair (as seen on TV).
You sit them down and smile and offer effusive thanks for the gift, which is, really … well, you’ve never seen anything like it. And how is Uncle Billy’s shoulder getting on? Really? Well, it’s just unfortunate that his prank with the lawn flamingo got so out of hand, but he’s always been a high-spirited one, that Billy.
Eventually they’ll start to shuffle in their seats and make motions toward getting up, and you’ll tell them, “Well, now, why don’t you go freshen up before you leave?” While they’re down the hall, inspecting your bathroom décor, including the embroidered toilet paper cover they gave you last year that you hastily pulled from the linen closet and clapped over a roll of Charmin, you sprint into the kitchen.
Your lemon curd has cooled sufficiently. Carefully tip it into your cute little container, screw the lid on and fluff up the ribbons. Then meet them at the front door, smiling, a jar of liquid sunshine clasped in your hands. “I just couldn’t let you leave without it,” you say. “Make sure you pop it in the fridge once you get home.” They may only feign delight at the door (“You just know that was last-minute,” somebody will sniff, out of earshot) but once they get a taste of it later, you’ll hear a lot of yearning, wistful hints about how good it was, and how it’s such a shame that jar was so tiny.
Your gift may prove a double-edged sword, because by next year, everybody’s going to start dropping by before, during and after the holidays, bearing token presents and hopeful looks. But at least that way, you’ll have plenty of slippers and snuggies to send to your own distant acquaintances and kin. Better send some of them to Uncle Billy; he’s prone to chills ever since that stunt with the snowblower.