The lemon has an undeserved bad name. Even the dictionary, after stating its botanical definition as an acidy, yellow, citrus fruit, gives as its second definition: “something unsatisfactory; a dud.” In the realm of cooking, however, it is better than satisfactory and anything but a dud.
What’s not to like about lemons? They are sunny, bright, and fresh, smell wonderful, impart a wonderful tang to almost every food they are mingled with, condition yeast doughs to improve their texture, can be used to take away foul odors, clean and bleach and are cheap and plentiful. Wow, doesn’t seem dud-like to me. Of course, they are sour. But that is just one more of their virtues, as far as I’m concerned. Mixed with a sweetener, lemon is one of the world’s great flavors.
But did you know that lemon can be added, in some form, to almost every dish you cook? You can use it as a flavor intensifier–like salt or msg–but no side effects. I use them so frequently that I have them on hand all the time, but when I make my homemade lemon curd (everyone’s favorite), I grate all the lemons before juicing and freeze the lemon zest along with any extra juice, just in case I run out. I keep a cut lemon in a baggie in the refrigerator and using a small tea-strainer to keep out seeds, squeeze a teaspoon or so into water for sweet corn, all fish dishes, all sauces, yeast doughs, almost any food you name.
The lemon tree has been around for about four thousand years. It originated in India and found its way to the Mediterranean Region, where it flourished due to perfect climate conditions. Christopher Columbus brought seeds to the Americas and they have been an essential part of our cuisine ever since. The lemon’s restorative power is legend; it was thought to be an antidote to poisoning, a cosmetic to fade freckles, whiten teeth and fingernails, freshen breath and redden lips. It is actually a nutritional marvel. We are all familiar with its great supply of Vitamin C, but it supplies fiber, potassium and vitamins A and B as well.
To choose lemons, look for firm, thin, fine-textured skin and a bright yellow color. Greenish lemons are not mature and will be too acid. Pick heavy fruit, it indicates juiciness. Most of our lemons are “Eureka” or “Lisbon” varieties. The “Meyer” lemon is sweeter and may actually be an orange-lemon hybrid. They are not available everywhere.
Try making your own lemon curd. It is really easy, much cheaper than the grocery store variety, and an extremely versatile thing to have on hand. Besides serving with scones, or muffins, or any breakfast bread, try folding whipped cream into lemon curd and filling pie shells or meringue shells. Topped with more whipped cream that is a spectacular and simple dessert. Garnish with candied lemon peel or slices.
6 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 cup sugar
One-half cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
One stick butter, cut into small pieces
One tablespoon grated lemon zest
Strain the egg yolks through a sieve into a nonreactive pan over low heat. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice and cook, stirring constantly, for about 12 minutes until thickened and smooth. Do not let mixture boil.
Remove from heat and whisk until slightly cooled. Stir in butter, a piece at a time until melted and smooth. Add the zest. Pour into hot, sterilized jars, cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes one pint.
A favorite lemon recipe of mine is the following pudding-cake. It makes its own sauce, with a cake-like top, is delicious served warm with whipped cream, or cold with a blackberry sauce and a few whole blackberries for garnish. Dusted with powdered sugar, it’s spectacular.
Lemon Pudding Cake
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
One-fourth cup lemon juice
Two-thirds cup milk
1 cup sugar
One-half cup flour
One-fourth teaspoon salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; set aside. Beat egg yolks. Blend in lemon peel, juice and milk. Add sugar, flour and salt; beat until smooth. Fold into whites. Pour into ungreased 1-quart casserole or 10 small (5-oz) ramekins. Place baking dishes in a pan of 1-inch deep very hot water. Bake 45 to 50 minutes.
Back in the ‘60’s, Peter, Paul and Mary sang about lemons in the Lemon Tree Song:
“Lemon tree very pretty
And the lemon flower is sweet,
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat.”
Looking for more lemon recipes?
The old-standby and perennial favorite is surprisingly not a cinch to make. I made my cooking reputation on this pie when I was sixteen. My mother got a call from my Dad that he was bringing home some visiting engineers from his work (he was an engineer for Honeywell). She hastily put together a delightful dinner but recruited me to make the dessert. I never had many qualms in those days about my ability to make something, even for the first time (boy, has that changed since), so I looked at what we had in the house and found lemons. A lemon meringue pie seemed like just the thing. It turned out perfectly and I must have impressed both the guests and my mother for she had a different attitude about my cooking from then on.
Here’s the recipe I used, straight out of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (1962 edition, I think).
Lemon Meringue Pie
1 ½ cups sugar
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
3 Tbsp. flour
1 ½ cups hot water
3 slightly beaten egg yolks
½ tsp. grated lemon peel
2 Tbsp. butter
1/3 cup lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
3 egg whites
1 tsp. lemon juice
6 Tbsp. sugar
In saucepan, mix sugar, cornstarch, flour and salt. Gradually blend in water. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium; cook and stir 8 minutes more. Remove from heat. Stir a small amount of the hot mixture into egg yolks; return to hot mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low, cook and stir 4 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Add lemon peel and butter. Gradually stir in 1/3 cup lemon juice. Cover entire surface with plastic wrap; cool 10 minutes. Now pour into cooled pastry shell. Cool to room temperature (about 1 hour).
For meringue: beat egg whites with 1 tsp. lemon juice until soft peaks form. Gradually add 6 Tbsp. sugar, beating until stiff peaks form and sugar is dissolved. Spread meringue over filling, sealing to edges of pastry. Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes or until meringue is golden. Cool thoroughly before serving.
If you made the lemon curd, you’ll have lots of egg whites left over. I bet you already know that egg whites freeze beautifully! Just put them in a freezer container right when you are separating the eggs. You can put new ones over the already frozen ones in your container, mark how many on the top of the container with hash marks. When you have 12-14 or 1-2/3 cups you’re ready to make Lemon Angel Food Cake:
Lemon Angel Food Cake
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. From lemons, grate 2 tsp. peel and squeeze 1 Tbsp. juice. Set aside. On waxed paper, sift flour, then spoon into 1 cup measure, lightly. Level with knife; don’t tap down. On clean waxed paper, sift powdered sugar and measure the same way. Mix together in bowl; set aside. In large mixer bowl with mixer at high speed, beat egg whites, cream of tartar and salt until soft peaks form. Beat in vanilla and lemon juice. Beating on high speed, gradually sprinkle in granulated sugar, 2 Tbsp. at a time until stiff peaks form. Sift flour mixture over egg whites, 1/3 at a time, folding after each addition. Fold in lemon peel. Spoon batter into an angel food cake pan; spread evenly. Bake 35-40 minutes. Invert. Cool.
Grate 1 tsp. lemon peel and squeeze ¼ cup juice. In 1-quart pan, mix sugar and cornstarch. Add lemon peel, lemon juice, butter and 2/3 cup water. Heat to boiling over high heat, stirring frequently. Boil 1 minute, stirring. Transfer sauce to bowl; cover and refrigerate. Makes 1 ¼ cups.
Serve cake with lemon sauce and whipped cream.