Simple Desserts: Lemon Possets

Strike a pose and fancy yourself English. Do you? Do you? Then say posset.

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When Macbeth asked for a posset to be prepared for him before going to bed he referred to a curdled milk drink, popular in his time. It was considered a specific remedy for some minor illnesses, such as a cold, and a general remedy for others, as even today people drink hot milk to help them get to sleep.

A posset (also spelled poshote, poshotte) was a British hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale, often spiced, which was popular from medieval times to the 19th century. The word is mainly used nowadays for a related dessert similar to syllabub.

Take the scene when Lady Macbeth uses poisoned possets to knock out the guards outside Duncan’s quarters in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii:

The doors are open, and the surfeited groomsDo mock their charge with snores. I have drugg’d their possets

That death and nature do contend about them,

Whether they live or die.

Intrigued by the posset? Delightfully ‘set’ cream recipe sans gelatin, eggs or cornflour. The result – a pudding worth of royalty.

This tangy golden cream “sets” like a baked custard without any gelatine or eggs, because of the way the lemon juice reacts with the cream.  It’s a brilliant little idea for dinner parties and do-ahead desserts.

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The first time I came across this recipe a couple of years ago, it was in a little pullout booklet of seasonal recipes from the British Good Food Magazine. I dog-eared the page, promising to come back to it. And so 24 months later, here we are – posset conquered, and a tale told.

This dessert recipe combines 3 simple ingredients – cream, sugar and citric juice – in my case lemon; and a bit of heat and cold.Though lemon possets are the most common, cases of lime possets are also recorded in the annals. As are St Clement possets (made with oranges, lemons) and named after the popular English nursery rhyme/singing song:

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

This is the science of desserts at its finest. First you cook the cream which must be sufficiently fatty (no lower than 35%) with granulated sugar. Once warm, you take off the heat and add the lemon juice. And then leave it to set it the fridge.

So why/how does this work? My cursory science and research leads me to conclude that the heat and the sugar play critical roles. Sugar, when heated increases the viscosity of liquids and it does the exact same in this case, thickening the cream and creating an invisible but strengthened network of proteins. Thus when the lemon juice is added, it doesn’t curdle the cream mixture as expected but rather emulsifies it as it cools (think of ice-cream where citric acids are often added as to keep fats from separating), resulting in a smooth, tangy set custard that carries beautifully the sweet, blossomy, fresh flavours of lemon.

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One analogy likens it to the Italian panna cotta. And I can only nod in agreement.

The night I attempted this ( I love cooking at night) my possets were ready in no time and set just before I went to bed. Of course I grabbed a spoonful. Hmmm, lemony I thought to myself. I managed to get a good night’s rest and breakfast Saturday morning was a slice of raspberry cake and a scoop of the posset. They clashed. Too tart, too sweet, too creamy. A disappointment but I knew there was more to be had.

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That was confirmed with a leftover chocolate muffin. I combined both and once I began eating, I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began – perfection on a plate. Interestingly I wouldn’t ever have put lemon and chocolate together. And so to double-check that I was on the right track, the following day I made a double-chocolate ‘oven’ cake – and I was right. Winners extraordinaire.

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Lemon Posset

Ingredients
500ml (2 cups) double/heavy cream (at least 35% fat content – higher fat contents work well)
2/3 cups granulated sugar (I used light brown sugar hoping to capture some caramel flavours which didn’t quite come through)
5 tablespoons lemon juice
Microplaned zest of 1 lemon

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Directions

In a small saucepan, heat cream and sugar to boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar. Continue boiling for 5 minutes and DO NOT WALK AWAY – watch the heat and the cream, it easily boils over.

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Remove pan from heat and stir in lemon juice. Let cool, about 15 minutes. Pass through a sieve and then add the lemon zest.

Pour even amounts into four ramekins and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or until set.

Best served with unsweetened whipped cream.

Note that once set, the top will be firm and the base may be a bit soft.

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The Verdict

It smells rich – like cream. It looks and sets firm as custard (don’t tire of hearing me say this please). It spreads like butter and tastes like a sweet lemon curd, only creamier. All in all, this is incredibly lemony and luxurious…and best served in small bites, and as an accompaniment to cookies, cakes and other bakes.
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Other Posset recipes

Lime Possets at the BBC Good Food

Lemon and Rosemary Possets on food52

Video of Meyer lemon possets on You Tube

DSC_1772[wpurp-searchable-recipe]Simple Desserts: Lemon Possets – – – [/wpurp-searchable-recipe]

38 Comments

  1. Thanks Ozoz for a great blog on the history and making of a posset. I am from New Zealand and have just started my own blog called Jeannie’s Kitchen and run a facebook page as well – jeannies.kitchen where I put in short food stories or link to great TED talks on food. Last night I went to a local restaurant and tasted a most exotic posset – Lemon posset with ruby grapefruit and campari jelly. I have put a photo up on my facebook page with a link to your posting on possets.
    I really like the style of your blog and your photos are great. If you are keen to see what I am doing here in the south pacific then take a look on http://jeanniehayden.blogspot.co.nz I will subscribe to your blog so that my followers can see your postings if they wish.
    Regards Jeannie

  2. Funny….I just finished a book set in medieval England and possets (the drink) were all the rage. Like the look and sound of your MUCH better. Lemon and chocolate…YUM!

  3. You are too good! I love cooking/baking items I find in literature. I’ve never seen a posset before, so this post tickled me pink! I hope you have a wonderful Friday and a great weekend. Thank you for making my stomach growl and my face smile. Love from Austin!

  4. I definitely learnt something new today Oz. I’ve made syllabub before (and loved it), now I must try this posset. It sounds delightful, and very quick to whip up. Definitely bookmarked 🙂

  5. Great post, Oz! I’ve heard of possets, but had no idea about their background, nor how easy they are to make. I have a glut of lemons on my tree at the moment and am keen to find citrus recipes, so this one is brilliantly timely – thanks.

  6. I love the history lesson. Fascinating. But what I’m most excited about is the possibility of creating something like Panna Cotta (which I love) without the gelatin. Bookmarked for sure!

  7. I have wanted to try a posset for SO long, dear Oz! 🙂 Can’t wait to make this soon. It sounds delicious. 🙂

    PS – Your pretzels were a HUGE hit last night! We ate them while watching a movie and couldn’t stop exclaiming how yummy they were. Thank you SO much. 🙂

  8. Creamy and lemony…sings to my heart! I love raspberry and lemon together, like you I would have thought that it would have worked, I think that you found a better solution, though. Can’t go wrong with chocolate 😉

  9. I’ve never known anyone who’d made a posset before. I’ve read about them but now I’m looking forward to trying it myself. You’re clever and adventurous!

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