What you see before you is the entire leaf lard, a cylindrical mass of fat that runs along the loin of the pig. Part of the fat encases the kidneys; the entire mass weighs about two and half pounds on a 220-pound-or-so pig and can be pulled away from the body cavity in one fell swoop. Leaf lard is one of the choicest types of fat on the pig (next to the venerable fatback, of course) for its remarkable taste and versatility. Neutral in flavor with just a subtle savory undertone, the fat, being unattached to any flesh, is completely pure and creamy.
Usually, the majority of the lard I render goes into confit, but I'm always on the lookout for ways to incorporate lard into my baking activities. Pie crusts made with butter and lard are far more interesting than crusts made solely with butter, but, aside from pie, lard can be used in much the same way as butter in baked goods. Whipped and aerated in the stand mixer with sugar, lard makes extremely tender cookies; cut into flour, lard forms the base for other types of pastry shells like empanadas.
If you're shopping for lard from your butcher, ask for lard rendered from the leaf lard or better yet, request the leaf lard itself. Rendering the lard in your own kitchen affords the extra benefit of the cracklings that are left in the pot after all the liquid has been extracted. Small, crunchy bits of golden brown fat, the cracklings are just slightly chewy and make for a savory snack by themselves or a decadent topping on pasta, bread, and so forth.
There are all kinds of directions in recipe books for how best to render lard, and of course, all of these methods are valid and workable. Some call for a candy thermometer to gauge the temperature of the liquid fat; others have you chopping the fat into little bits and pieces prior to rendering.
Here's my problem, though, with methods requiring extra equipment: if you chop up the lard in the food processor, you will surely cut down on rendering time, but you're left to clean the film of fat off the plastic bowl of the food processor, which is not a particularly pleasant task. And while it would be helpful to have a candy thermometer by your side, it's absolutely nonessential for the task. Absent the gauge, just be doubly careful that the stove is set over low heat and the risk that the lard will render too quickly and burn is nil.
Basically, folks, what I'm trying to say is that nothing should stand in your way when it comes to a culinary communion with lard. If you are so clever as to obtain the entirety of leaf lard, then all you really need to render it is a knife and heavy pot.
Chop the lard into 1-inch cubes, plop the cubes of lard into the pot along with a little bit of water, and set the pot over low heat to slowly render the fat. Over the course of an hour or two, the cubes of lard will begin to surrender the liquid fat. Hissing along the way, the cubes of fat will eventually reduce into tendrils and bits of crunchy material, producing liquid fat that will be golden and ready to use in whichever delicious capacity you desire.
Of all innumerable ways to use lard in sweets, my favorite method isn't baked or fried at all. Rather, the lard is cut along with an equal amount of butter into cake flour. Lemon zest and juice, raisins, and freshly ground nutmeg and cinnamon give the cakes just the right amount of tang and spice. Barely held together with milk, the dough is cut from cookie or biscuit cutters and slowed browned over a cast iron skillet. Cooked in the skillet, the surface of the cakes is crisp and the interior, tender and dense.
There is something quietly extraordinary about the texture of these little tea cakes: the crumb is similar to that of a scone made with cream, but unlike a cream scone, these little cakes may be kept for days without any noticeable dryness. The flavor, in fact, only improves with time: the taste of the dough mellows; the flavor of the nutmeg and the cinnamon become more pronounced. The recipe for these cakes, called Welsh Griddle Cakes, is adapted from A Baker's Odyssey, a unique collection of recipes from immigrants in America who, spanning so many different nations and cultures, all harbor a fondness for lard.
- 4 cups cake flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup rendered lard, in its solid form
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar plus more for sprinkling
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 cup golden raisins, currants, or dried cranberries
- Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
- 1 large egg
- 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3 Tablespoons whole milk, plus more if needed
- All purpose flour, for rolling dough
- For the rendered lard:
- 1 entire leaf lard, about 2 1/2 pounds
- 1/4 cup water
In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the lard and butter, or just the butter, and using a pastry blender, or two knives, cut the fat into the flour until the particles are the size of small peas. Using your fingertips, rub the flour and fat mixture until the lard and the butter are fairly small and the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in the sugar, nutmeg, allspice, the dried fruit, and lemon rind.
In a small bowl with a fork, beat the egg, lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons of milk. Sprinkle the egg mixture over the flour mixture and use the fork to start stirring it in, tossing the dough until it forms medium clumps. Then reach into the dough with both hands and, working quickly, keep tossing it until it feels moist, squeezing the dough together to form one mass. If the dough won't hold together, add a bit more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time.
Lightly flour your work surface, place the dough on it, and roll over the dough to flatten it; continue rolling until it is 1/3-inch thick. Use the cutter to stamp out rounds. Transfer them to the sheet or tray. Reroll and restamp the scraps, using all the dough.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over low heat. Carefully transfer the cakes to the skillet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Cook over low heat for 5 to 6 minutes or until the bottoms are deep golden brown. Turn over carefully with a spatula turner and cook the second sides for 5 more minutes. The surfaces should feel crisp when tapped.
Transfer the cakes to a wire rack. Cook the remaining cakes in the same way. Serve the cakes warm or at room temperature. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days.
For the rendered lard: (makes about 10 cups)
With a sharp knife, cut the lard into approximately 1 inch cubes.
Place the cubes of lard into a heavy pot, preferably enameled cast iron and add the water. Cover the pot and let the lard render for an initial ten minutes; then remove the lid. Maintaining the very low heat, slowly bring the lard to a temperature at which the liquid is barely simmering. Continue to render the lard for 1 to 2 hours, until the bits of cracklings are golden brown and very small, and the liquid fat is pale and golden.
Strain the cracklings from the lard, pressing down on the mesh of the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible from the solids. Set aside the cracklings for another use. Cool the lard to room temperature and refrigerate until solid. The lard may be kept in airtight containers for several months.