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.
In a small bowl, add the salt to the water and stir to dissolve. Keep very cold until ready to use.
To make the dough in a food processor, put the flour in the work bowl. Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and scatter the pieces over the flour. Pulse briefly until the mixture forms large crumbs and some of the butter is still in pieces the size of peas. Add the water-salt mixture and pulse for several seconds until the dough begins to come together in a ball but is not completely smooth. You should still be able to see some butter chunks.
To make the dough by hand, put the flour in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and scatter the pieces over the flour. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture forms large crumbs and some of the butter is still in pieces the size of peas. Drizzle in the water-salt mixture and toss with a fork until the dough begins to resemble a shaggy mass. Gently mix until the dough comes together into a ball but is not completely smooth. You should still be able to see some butter chunks.
On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 2 equal balls and shape each ball into a 1-inch-thick disk. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight. (Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, prepare the lemons.)
On a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of dough to one-eighth-inch thick, rolling from the center toward the edge in all directions. Lift and rotate the dough a quarter turn every few strokes to discourage sticking, and work quickly to prevent the dough from becoming warm. Lightly dust the work surface with extra flour as needed to prevent sticking.
Roll the dough to make a round 1 1/2 inches larger than the pan. Carefully transfer the round to a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom (folding it in half or into quarters to simplify the transfer if necessary), easing it into the bottom and sides and then pressing gently into place, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Roll out the remaining disk to make a second round for the top crust. Cover and refrigerate.
Filling and assembly
Cut the lemons into paper-thin slices, discarding the thicker stem end and any seeds. Put them in a nonreactive bowl (stainless steel or glass), add the sugar, and toss. Cover and let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours or overnight. If any seeds are still left, they will usually float to the top, where they are easily fished out. If you are using the more tender-skinned Meyer lemons, you can proceed to the next step without letting them sit, as the skins don’t need the sugar to tenderize.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and salt until blended. Add the eggs to the lemon mixture; mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the pastry lined tart pan. The mixture will be very liquidy, so distribute the lemon pieces evenly by hand.
To make the egg wash, in a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and cream. Brush the rim of the pastry with the egg wash and lay the second pastry round over the filling. Trim the pastry by pressing down on the edge of the pan and discarding the cut-off scraps.
Brush the top crust with the egg wash and sprinkle the sanding sugar evenly over the top. Chill for about 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut a few slits in the crust and place the tart on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.
Bake until the pie is golden brown on top and the filling is bubbling (visible through the vents), about 60 minutes.
Let the pie cool completely to allow the filling to set properly before removing it from the tart pan and slicing. Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed.
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