Friday, April 5, 2013

When life gives you lemons

There are rugs on my porch drying in the sun.

This many not mean a lot to you... but to me, it means spring.  It means I can open up the windows in every room, airing out the recycled, stale air.  It means new fruits and vegetables are in season again, making my brain go on overload with choices for my next recipe.  And it means I'll be dedicating more time to watching my little seedlings of basil, chives, and thyme flourish on the sun soaked porch.  It means spring.

With the change in the air comes a change for lighter things.  Lighter clothes, lighter days, and lighter recipes.  So let's talk about the latter, shall we?

It may not be quite that time for avocado and feta salads, or even margaritas on the Indiana Dunes beach, but it can definitely be time for lemonade.  Crisp, cool, and scrumptious lemonade.  But this isn't your grandma's Country Time, people.  Nooooooo way.  This lemonade... it draws you in.  Enveloping you in a caramelized lemon flavor that only the early months of spring will allow.  Hardly tart, but undeniably packed with punch of its own, one sip and it'll feel as though it's been spring time for months.

Lemonade gets its twist from mixing lemon juice, water, and sugar together.  No argument with that logic, right?  So what's different here?  Why are our taste buds singing with delight?  It's in the syrup.  Instead of the traditional combination of sugar and water to create a simple syrup, we're concentrating it and caramelizing the flavors on the stove.  But we aren't adding water... not yet, at least.

Lemon juice blends with sugar over heat, boiling, then simmering, until glossy and rich.  It's all about the low, slow simmer towards reduction.  Lemon syrup is like mother nature's gold.  Except for real gold... which of course, is her gold as well.  Obviously.

But it doesn't stop there.  Our lemon syrup needs a flavor distinction all its own - something to make it sing out with complexity.  In goes pure vanilla extract!

Lastly, for something truly refreshing and different, we use sparkling water and accent the whole thing with a sprig of mint.  Served in a chilled glass on a sunny porch, you'll have your neighbors offering to do your spring cleaning for you, if only you'd invite them over for a glass of your special lemonade.

Vanilla Lemonade

300 ml lemon juice (from 6 large lemons, or 8 smaller lemons)
250 grams granulated sugar (about 1 cup)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
sparkling water (or club soda would do nicely)
fresh mint sprigs (optional, but encouraged)

In a small sauce pot over medium-high heat, whisk together the lemon juice and the sugar.  When the sugar comes to a boil, reduce to the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 25 - 30 minutes, when the syrup has reduced and become glossy and thickened.

Remove the syrup from the heat and whisk in the vanilla.  Pour into a heat-proof glass bottle (or mason jar), and let cool for 1 hour.  Syrup keeps in a sealed container in the fridge for up to one week.

To complete the lemonade, measure out 1 tablespoon of syrup for every 12 ounces of water into a cocktail shaker or mason jar with a tight fitting lid.  Shake vigorously to blend and pour over ice in a glass.  Garnish with a mint sprig, if using, and finish with a fun paper straw.

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