If I could have only one herb in my garden, I suspect I'd choose lemon verbena. It's hardly the most practical of the bunch, but I think it's certainly the most delightful. In the past I've used it to make syrups, ice cream, or cocktails, but this year one of my (favorite) cookbooks fell open to this recipe and I thought it was time to try something new. I'm so glad I did, because this may be my favorite verbena recipe so far.
The custard has to be prepared in advance, though much of the time is chilling time. What you're rewarded with is the purest of pleasures in a 4 ounce cup - and 4 ounces is exactly the right amount because it's deceptively rich, even though it tastes like summer in a spoon.
It's perfection served as is, but if you're going to accompany it with anything, I'd suggest raspberries (lightly tossed in a lemon verbena syrup, perhaps?) or a thin, crispy cookie such as a florentine or tuile. Anything else would be overkill.
If you're not lucky enough to have lemon verbena available, make a note to grow it next spring. I'm usually able to find starter pots of it at my farmers market or one of the better nurseries in my area, but I've also purchased starter plants online and had a great deal of success with those as well - and they don't require much care, beyond the basic watering and plenty of sun. Perfect for those like me, with the not-so-green thumb!
Lemon Verbena Custards
adapted from The Last Course by Claudia Fleming with Melissa Clark
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 ounce (1 cup packed) roughly chopped fresh lemon verbena leaves
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the milk, cream, lemon verbena, and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar with the egg and egg yolks until smooth. Turn off the heat under the cream mixture and whisk about 1/4 cup of the cream into the egg mixture to temper it, whisking constantly to keep the eggs from curdling. Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan with the remaining cream, whisking the mixture constantly. Strain the mixture into a bowl and chill for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Pour the custard into six 4-ounce glass or ceramic ramekins. Arrange them in a baking pan and place it on the oven rack. Pour enough very hot water into the baking pan to reach two-thirds of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking pan with foil and pierce all over with a knife. Bake the custards for about 30 minutes, then lift off a corner of the foil to allow the steam to escape. Re-cover the pan and continue to bake until the custards are set around the edges but still slightly jiggly in the center, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Transfer the custards to a rack and let cool at room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.
*If you wish to unmold your custards, run a small knife around the sides of the ramekins, then invert the custards onto dessert plates.