On the dessert menu, that sprucing is the work of Benoit’s new head pastry chef, Thomas Padovani, who joined the restaurant in April. Padovani, who is just 26, originally hails from the island of Corsica, France’s most Mediterranean region. Before coming to Benoit, he worked at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, an opulent hotel restaurant in Paris where Ducasse focuses on "naturalness," which is to say healthful dishes centered around vegetables, whole grains, and seafood. All of that background shines through in the desserts Padovani has been adding to the menu, and nowhere more clearly than in the dessert simply titled "lemon curd."
Benoit’s classic desserts (designated by a circle next to them on the menu) are the pleasurably simple and rich staples of French pastry: millefeuille, tarte tatin, baba au rhum, all in shades of cream and caramel. The lemon curd, as you might guess when you read on the menu that it comes with cucumber, is something else entirely. It’s a sunburst of a dessert, a cushion of unusually creamy curd bedazzled with diced cucumber, cucumber jelly, candied lemon peel, and tart lemon segments, then topped with a hypnotic spiral of lemon thyme ice cream. A whiff of mint in the curd makes it taste fresh and summery, but this is a great dessert for the colder months too, since citrus, after all, is a winter fruit. It is, in fact, the perfect dessert for the end of any meal at Benoit where one has already indulged in foie gras and escargot and is in need of a sweet palate cleanser. Here’s how it’s made.
This dessert is an assemblage of simple components — all but two involve three ingredients or fewer. But each adds a different flavor or texture: crisp or silky, tart or creamy, bitter or sweet. And each must be crafted and added to the balance with care.
Padovani begins with the heart of the dish, the lemon curd, which, if we’re being specific about it, is actually lemon-lime-mint curd. Lemon is the dominant of the two flavors, but lime, Padovani explains, adds fragrance. Fresh mint leaves also add fragrance, not just to the dessert but to the entire kitchen, as the chef submerges them in the juice and heats it to a gentle simmer. When the leaves have just begun to wilt, he strains them out and returns the juice to the pot.
Next he whisks together whole eggs and sugar, and pours this mixture into the pot. He stirs everything together and then begins whisking as the pot warms to a very low heat. He whisks continuously as the mixture climbs to a simmer, occasionally pulling the whisk from the pot to watch the thickening curd drip off. He is watching for the moment it takes on a certain "creamy" look, at which point he knows it’s done.
Pulling the pot of curd from the burner, Padovani then tosses in a handful of cubed butter. While many lemon curd recipes would simply have you whisk this butter into the warm curd, Padovani prefers to use an immersion blender, because it "makes it really silky smooth." The curd then goes into the fridge to chill and thicken further before plating.
Next Padovani makes the base for the lemon thyme ice cream (which is flavored with the herb lemon thyme, not with lemon and thyme). He gently heats whole milk with butter and whole sprigs of lemon thyme until the butter has melted. Many ice cream recipes would call for cream here, but Padovani says he prefers the combination of butter and milk because it makes for a smoother, "sleeker" product. Next he adds milk powder, for extra body, and glucose powder, which has a more concentrated sweetness than sugar, so he can use less of it — again for the sake of texture.
Whisking while the mixture continues to heat, Padovani then adds egg yolks. Then, while he continues to stir, he watches carefully for the custard to reach 80º C. Then he pulls it from the heat and puts it in the fridge to let the thyme steep and the mixture cool. After two hours, he’ll strain out the herbs and run it through the ice cream machine.
Meanwhile, he makes the cucumber jelly, which involves cucumber juice and gelatin. Padovani uses sheet gelatin, which he plunges into ice water, where they can soften without dissolving. Then he heats the fresh cucumber juice (no sugar added) just until it’s warm enough to dissolve the gelatin. Spa-like waves of cucumber steam waft across the kitchen. Padovani pulls the soft, gleaming gelatin from its ice bath and stirs it into the cucumber juice until it’s dissolved. Then he strains the liquid to get rid of any stray cucumber roughage, and puts it in the fridge to firm up.
Next up, lemon two ways: confited and poached. For both preparations, Padovani uses a combination of regular lemons and Meyer lemons. The flavor of each is "completely different," he says, and he likes the two together. For the lemon confit, he heats sugar with water until it’s dissolved into a syrup. Then he quarters his lemons and drops them into the syrup where they’ll cook at a low temperature for three hours. They come out like supple, translucent candies, with only a hint of bitterness and all sourness erased.
For the poached lemons, Padovani again prepares a sugar syrup, but this time he supremes the lemons, removing peel and pith. And rather than cook the segments, he places them in a container and pours the hot syrup over them. After an hour, when the syrup has cooled, the segments emerge still juicy and bracingly sour, but just sweet enough to eat on their own.
Finally, the elements are ready for plating. Padovani peels half a cucumber and dices it into tiny cubes. He slices the pith and flesh off the confit lemon quarters, then cuts the remaining petals of candied peel into thin triangles. He carefully lays out the poached lemon segments on a paper towel-lined tray, to drain off any extra juices, which would make the dessert sloppy. Then he scoops a dollop of lemon curd onto the center of the plate, using the back of the spoon to swirl it outwards. Alternating between Meyer lemon and regular lemon (the Meyer lemons are a slightly darker yellow), Padovani gently arranges poached segments in a ring around the curd, like petals on a sunflower. He piles diced cucumber in the center, then sticks slivers of candied peel into the curd between the lemon segments. They poke up like blades of grass. Last, he spoons out small, rough chunks of cucumber jelly, setting them around the edges of the dessert like pale emeralds.
Before adding the ice cream, the plate gets a final decorative touch: a dusting of lemon and lime zest, and a scattering of the glittering nodules of pulp from a purple finger lime. Finally, Padovani drags his spoon across the surface of a new pan of ice cream, scooping out a soft spiral that he rests on top of the diced cucumber. The end result is cool and creamy, fresh and bright, and probably unlike any other lemon curd dessert you’ve had.