Piled high in a big bowl on the kitchen counter, flamboyantly yellow lemons are usually eye-catching accidental still-life artworks this time of year. Their pure, primary colors and shapes warm the room. But this season, after the citrus-freezing weather, lemons have become little luxuries. Maybe we should be displaying them one at a time in velvet-lined cases.
It’s a new way of thinking about an everyday ingredient. And the lemon stands up to the scrutiny, of course. Every bit of the fruit is precious to the cook -- the peel (rich in aromatic oil), the tart flesh -- nothing need be discarded. Instead, showcase the lemons you’ve lovingly selected at the farmers market in these three desserts that make the most of the fruit’s unique panoply of flavors and textures.
A lemon upside-down cake with a deliriously marmalade-like topping was inspired by an orange and cardamom upside-down cake recipe from David Lebovitz, a longtime pastry chef at Chez Panisse (the recipe is on his website, www.davidlebovitz.com).
A Shaker lemon pie, adapted from a recipe by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson (“Tartine”), is an unusual two-crust creation with the elegant combination of simplicity and beauty (or in this case, deliciousness) that informs the Shaker ethos. Both use lemon slices, rind and all, and can be made with regular or Meyer lemons (those mellow, thin-skinned beauties).
Meyer lemon muffins use chopped lemons in the batter and are each topped with a lemon slice that becomes almost candied as the muffins bake.
Each recipe calls for a slightly different approach to using whole lemons.
For the Shaker pie, cut the lemons into paper-thin slices at least three hours before you plan to bake (or the night before), toss with sugar, and let set. This tenderizes the peel. This step is not necessary if you’re using Meyers. The result will be a tangy filling with beautifully textured bits of fruits suspended in lemon curd.
Sliced lemons and grated peel account for the zesty flavor of the lemon upside-down cake, which pairs a classic vanilla cake with a not-too-sweet topping for a satisfyingly adult dessert. Select small lemons for this cake; they’re the ideal size. Arrange about 30 slices, overlapping, in a mixture of melted butter and brown sugar in a 10-inch skillet. Top the fruit mixture with cake batter, and bake.
When the cake is done baking, it’s inverted onto a serving plate and the top magically displays a lovely arrangement of caramelized lemon slices.
Our recipe for Meyer lemon muffins calls for Ceylon cinnamon, and is worth looking for, (although regular cinnamon may be substituted). Ceylon cinnamon, or “true” cinnamon, is made from a different tree than the commonly used cassia cinnamon, and has a delicate flavor with citrus overtones that will underline the floral flavor of the Meyer lemons.
Use a blender or food processor to chop the Meyer lemons to be incorporated into the batter, but pulse briefly and do not allow the fruit to turn into puree. You want to see bits of peel in the muffins when you bite into them.
Each muffin is topped with a lemon slice and a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar -- a jaunty advertisement of the citrusy pleasures within.