Letitia Clark vividly recalls her grandmother’s love of all things dairy. “She was one of the only people I’ve ever known that would eat yogurt with double cream on it,” says Clark, who grew up in southwest England and is now based on the Italian island of Sardinia. “I grew up eating clotted cream with and on almost everything, like on toast, on cereal, on ice cream, on scones.”
One of the dishes she remembers particularly well is posset, an old-fashioned custard-like dessert made simply of cream, sugar and lemon. Its texture is a little denser than panna cotta—just firm enough to hold the shape of your spoon as you eat it.
My grandmother “was a very funny cook; she was always impatient and angry with something or frustrated by something and it was never dull in the kitchen, which made it quite fun when I was little,” says Clark. “If she was running short on time, she would make posset because she always had cream hanging around. It’s such a basic recipe, but it’s something that people sort of forgot about or is maybe a little bit out of fashion because it’s very creamy.”
In fact, posset has been a British classic for centuries. The dessert first appeared in the 1400s as a beverage made from hot milk and curdled with ale or some other kind of alcohol. Sometimes it was even flavored with spices. Fortunately, by the 16th century it had evolved into a far more appealing form of dessert.
When Clark was developing recipes for her second cookbook, La Vita è Dolce, which will be released in a few weeks, she knew posset had to be included. For years, while she was working in London restaurants as a chef and pastry chef, she enjoyed “dreaming up sweet combinations and making puddings.” This book, which is dedicated to her grandmother, was the perfect opportunity to blend childhood favorites with the flavors of her adopted Sardinian home.
“It made me think about posset again as something that I wanted to recreate,” she says. “It was almost always flavored with lemon—that sharpness cuts through the cream so perfectly. There’s something very seductive about its texture. It’s always comforting and completely indulgent.”
Instead of the usual yellow lemons, however, she looked to the citrus growing in her own Italian garden for a slight, but flavorful, twist. Here is Clark’s expert advice for making her signature posset.
THE CREAM & SUGAR
“I think people often forget about texture because they’re so obsessed with thinking about flavor, but textures can be almost more important,” says Clark.
With posset, a rich, creamy texture is of the utmost importance, especially since you’re working with so few ingredients. Double cream, which has a nearly 50 percent fat content, and sugar give it a “magical, silky texture.” (If you can’t find double cream, heavy whipping cream will also work.) These cook together at a low boil until the sugar is incorporated and the cream expands. Most importantly, the posset needs to chill for at least two hours (but preferably overnight) to fully set the ingredients together, “otherwise it’s not going to be very nice to eat.”
While lemons are a traditional addition to English posset, Clark’s Sardinian garden inspired her to try something a little different for La Vita è Dolce. When she was developing recipes for the book, she found that her lemon trees were full of unripe, green lemons, so she decided to give them a try. “I discovered that I really love their flavor,” says Clark. “It’s sort of like half lime, half lemon—it’s something slightly different.”
If you don’t have access to a lemon tree year-round, don’t worry. You can easily recreate the flavor of four green lemons by using three ripe yellow lemons and one lime instead. The juice and zest of the citrus is simply stirred into the cream and sugar mixture after it’s had a few minutes to cool. Then, it’s off to the fridge.
“The science of [a posset] is still a little bit of a mystery to me,” she says. “The acidity in the lemon coagulates the fats in the cream and thickens it, which is the same method as making a sour cream or mascarpone, but you don’t need to strain.”
Because posset is so simple, Clark likes to dress it up. For this, she looks for inspiration in a classic tart. “The same three elements [of a tart] are there if you serve a posset with some poached fruit and a little shard of pastry or shortbread,” she says. “You have those three textural elements with crunchy, creamy and juicy and you’ve also got those three colorful elements.”
One of her favorite combinations is poached blackberries and sage for a particularly Sardinian touch, but any seasonal poached fruit, like rhubarb, stone fruit or berries, works well. She also contends that a piece of crumbly, buttery shortbread (like the semolina shortbread in her book) is essential with the sharpness of the lemon.
“A classic English shortbread… is a bit like a posset,” she says. “It’s considered a bit old-fashioned and everyone’s sort of forgotten about it. But when you eat good shortbread, it can be the most delicious thing in the world. And then with poached fruit and that really creamy, indulgent posset, it’s just kind of the perfect trinity.”
Green Lemon Posset
Makes 6 small servings
2 cups double cream
.5 cup sugar
Zest of 4 large, green lemons*
.33 cup green lemon juice*
*If you do not have access to green (unripe) lemons, you can substitute 3 ripe lemons and 1 lime.
Add the cream and sugar to a medium saucepan and bring to a low boil. Stir gently (the cream will expand a lot) and continue to boil for a couple of minutes.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool for around 5 minutes.
Add the lemon zest and juice to the cream mixture and then strain the mixture (to remove the zest) into small cups or ramekins. Leave to chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Serve, with extra curls of lemon zest on top.