Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: When Life Hands You Lemons

January 12, 2023

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Buttermilk Lemon Cake, adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.

                                                      By Nancy Pollard

LET’S FACE IT, because it is January, we need a restorative cocktail while looking out the window. And I think a slightly updated Sidecar fits the bill. My mother-in-law was

Dorothy Remington Pollard

Dorothy Remington Pollard

very chic (and she made many of her own stunning outfits, like the one pictured in this photo). Dorothy Remington Pollard knew a thing or two about cocktails. She whisked my husband into the Knife and Fork ( a very swish restaurant in DC in the 1950s) to celebrate his birthday and first legal cocktail—which was a Sidecar. It is thought to have been invented after World War I, most likely in Paris, and was indeed named after a soldier’s sidecar attachment on his motorcycle. This one is adapted from an excellent book on making cocktails titled The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morganthaler. Do include the orange-peel garnish, as it takes the cocktail to another level.

Robert Pollard’s Sidecar

Yields 1 cocktail
Recipe by Robert Pollard.
Adapted from The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morganthaler.
¾ ounces lemon juice
¾ ounces Cointreau
1½ ounces VSOP Cognac
2 teaspoons simple syrup
Caster sugar to rim the glass
Orange peel for garnish
Combine the ingredients with enough ice cubes to cover in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into two prepared coupe-style cocktail glasses.

Twist a fresh orange peel to release the oils and then drop into the cocktail.

We like to to sugar the rim of the glass with caster sugar: Wipe the rim of the glass with a piece of lemon, then dip and swirl the glass in a plate of caster sugar.

Simply multiply the amounts in the ingredient list to create the number of cocktails you want to serve at a time.

Sacred Lemons and Limes

Sacred lemon tree in summer

Nancy Pollard’s Sacred Lemon Tree in summer.

I have a confession: I keep trying to re-create the Amalfi coast on my deck in the summer and in my living room in the winter. We visited Sorrento once in January, and there were lemon trees with lemons (and the occasional lime and orange trees) thriving. So naturally I thought, “I can do this [in Alexandria, Virginia]. I can have them in pots just like all the citrus trees growing happily in vessels all over Sorrento.” So, I am proud to announce that I have had some qualified success.

Not the orange tree, alas. I lost the orange tree. (It died a very slow and graceful death with two oranges still clinging to its branches . . . sort of a Tim Burton version.) This was replaced by a lime tree, which produced a few great daiquiris and a lime pudding cake before succumbing to a different death. It has now been replaced by a much more stalwart version. But the lemon tree has actually been chugging along and produces a handful of lemons every year. We call these “The Sacred Lemons”  and “The Sacred Lime or Two.” And we have nailed a few recipes that pay tribute to these precious few, zest and all.

If you have not tried the lemon ice cream (which you can make with either limes or lemons) from the inaugural Kitchen Detail post in March of 2018, put it on your “to make” list. It is embarrassingly easy and refreshing at any time of the year. I align myself with the owners of Berthillon in Paris, real ice cream lovers who eat it outside in the dead of winter

Sacrificial Fruit for Your Meals

sacred lemonsSo, just to give you an idea of the difference between the lemons from the grocery store and the ones off the somewhat stingy tree (neither my lemon nor my lime tree bears any resemblance to The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein), look to the picture above left. Top are two lemons from two different grocery stores, and the bottom beauty is, Guess what? The aroma from the cut fruit of either my lemons or limes can almost be appreciated from another room. I had the best daiquiri of my life from those limes (and I have had quite a few, first from my dad and then from my husband, who inherited his recipe).

You must know how much we at Kitchen Detail revere the recipes from Maida Heatter, and this Lemon Buttermilk cake, at right, from her original version of Maida Heatter”s Book of Great Desserts is no exception. This recipe apparently met with some resistance and was deleted from some subsequent printings of the book. But I have discussed this cake with other lifelong home baking friends who have made this cake with no problem, and we all fail to see any reason for controversy. It’s such a delicious cake: tender, lemony, with great keeping power. And it uses buttermilk, which I always seem to have left over after making things like Southern biscuits. You can make this in individual loaf pans as well. We recommend the stiff paper ones from Novacart or these nifty wood ones that can be put in the oven.

Buttermilk Lemon Cake

Yields 10 servings
This is lemon flavor in a cake with no additional lemon fortification! Light and moist with great keeping power under a cake dome.
Recipe by Maida Heatter.
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.
Butter for greasing the cake mold
Fine bread crumbs (or almond flour) for the cake mold
Finely grated rind of 2 large lemons
3 tablespoons (4.4cl) lemon juice
3 cups (420gr) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
8 ounces (227gr) or 1 cup unsalted butter
3 cups (612gr) caster sugar
5 large eggs
1 cup (240cl) buttermilk

For the glaze:
1/3 cup (7.9cl) lemon juice or mixture of lemon and lime juice
1/2 cup (100gr) caster sugar
Confectioner’s sugar for sifting before serving

Preheat oven to 325F. Butter a 10-to-12-cup tube cake mold. Dust with fine dry bread crumbs or (my choice) almond flour.

Mix lemon rind and juice and set aside.

Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, with the whisk attachment, cream the butter and gradually add the sugar until the mixture is light and not sandy-looking.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition at a medium-high speed. Beat for an additional 2 minutes after the last egg has been added.

On low speed, add the sifted ingredients in three parts and the buttermilk in two parts.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spoonula or rubber spatula and give a final few folds to make sure all ingredients are gently but thoroughly combined.

After removing the bowl from your mixer stand, fold in the lemon juice and rind before turning the batter into your prepared pan.

Rotate pan and smooth the batter, giving a small thump on the counter to level it.

The cake should bake over an hour, but check with a Thermapen as your done temperature should be a bit over 200F in the center, or use the cake-tester approach.

While the cake is baking, mix the glaze and let the liquid smooth out any little lumps in the confectioner’s sugar.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for 5 minutes.

Loosen the exterior edge and the tube edge of the cake with a narrow knife. Cover the cake, still in the pan, with a cooling rack and invert the cake onto the rack.

With a pastry brush, wipe the glaze all over the warm cake until it is absorbed, then let the cake stand until the glaze is set.

Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar through a fine strainer and transfer to a serving platter.

Waste Not, Want Not Muffins

pureed lemon for Whole Lemon Muffins

Puréed lemon for Whole Lemon Muffins.

I am not wild about most muffins as they are often too dry, and sometimes overstuffed with healthy ingredients. These are different: They are meltingly tender, reheat easily, and are made from a rough purée of whole lemon! I took the image at left to give you an idea of what it looks like before the pulsed nuts get stirred in. This recipe, adapted from The Pastry Queen by Rebecca Rather, was a favorite with our Teen Cuisinettes and Cuisiners, so make this with some kids hanging around in your kitchen. (As a non-lemon aside, Rather’s Tuxedo Cake and Jail House rolls are worth the price of admission.) The muffin recipe also has the benefit of using up a lot of yogurt, which I have in the fridge because we try to eat yogurt and then fail: Bacon and eggs, popovers, sticky buns always seem to call. I tried using free-standing paper muffin cups, but they never seem to work for me. So I now bake these in a muffin pan. The stiff mini-panettone ones from Novacart work beautifully as freestanding baking forms.


Whole Lemon Muffins

Yield varies according to size of muffin pan
Perfect tender muffin to make with tweens and teens. No lemon extract needed!
Recipe by Rebecca Rather.
Adapted from The Pastry Queen.
1 medium lemon, preferably organic
1 cup walnuts or pecans
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1½ cups caster sugar or granulated sugar (can be mixed with Light Muscovado sugar for deeper flavor)
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 2/3 cup (16 ounces) plain whole-milk yogurt

For the glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
Freshly squeezed juice from two small lemons
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease or line a 9-cup muffin pan with muffin papers. If you use a smaller muffin pan, you should get 12 to 18 muffins.

Wash and dry your lemon and cut it into quarters, removing the seeds. Process the quartered lemon (skin, pith, and all) in a food processor until you get a purée. Scrape this lemon purée into a bowl and then add the nuts to the food processor (no need to wash out the food processor bowl) and pulse 10 or 12 times. Stir the nuts and lemon purée together to combine and set aside.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

Using the paddle attachment on your electric mixer, cream the butter on high speed for a minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl before adding the sugar. Cream the butter and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, then scrape down the bowl.

Add the eggs all at once and beat on medium speed until combined. Add vanilla and mix in completely.

On low speed, add one third of the flour mixture to the batter, followed by half the yogurt. Add more flour, then the yogurt, and finish with the flour.

Fold the lemon-nut mixture thoroughly into the batter.

Spoon the batter into your muffin pan or cups, filling to the top.

Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffins comes out clean. Allow the muffins to cool in their pans for about 5 minutes before removing.

For the glaze:
Combine the sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla in a medium bowl to make the glaze.

Drizzle or brush the glaze over each muffin. The glaze sets in about 15 minutes.

You can serve immediately, or you can freeze the muffins, wrapped after letting them cool, for about 3 weeks. The muffins can be be reheated in the oven if you are keeping them in the fridge, but they should be eaten within three days.

A Double Decker

Lemon pudding cake is one of those crafty American recipes that you pour into a form after mixing, and it divides itself into a pudding layer at the base and a sort of sponge cake top.  You can make it in just about any ovenproof container you want. This works best with lemons or limes and not well with oranges.  When I use Meyer lemons, I decrease the sugar (amount variation is in the recipe card).  I also have used almond flour instead of sugar to line the ramekins. I have seen this recipe used in some pretty fancy restaurants where the pastry chef substitutes an unusual citrus fruit or citrus combination. It is then unmolded and garnished with some kind of frou-frou for $12. If you simply put whipped cream on top of standard-issue citrus and toss on a few berries, you can charge $12 too.

Citrus Pudding Cake

Yields 6
Diane Rossen Worthington mixes the lemons and limes in this classic American recipe, but I prefer using one or the other.
Recipe by Diane Rossen Worthington.
Butter and sugar for preparing the baking dish
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
2 teaspoons grated lemon or lime zest
3 large eggs, separated
¼ cup all-purpose unbleached flour
4 tablespoons strained lemon or lime juice
1 cup half-and-half, or ½ cup each milk and heavy cream
½ cup whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks
Berries for garnish
Preheat oven to 350F and wipe the interiors of your baking container (6 1-cup molds or a 1½-quart soufflé dish) with butter and some sugar.

In a large bowl (with a hand mixer) beat the ¾ cup sugar, butter and citrus zest together until well blended and sandy.

Add egg yolks to this mixture and beat until blended and the batter looks creamy.

Alternate blending in the flour and the citrus juice and half-and-half until well combined and the mixture has the consistency of pancake batter.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually add the 2 tablespoons caster sugar, while beating until a meringue with stiff, shiny peaks is formed.

Fold the meringue into the other mixture until just incorporated.

Pour into the molds or the soufflé dish.

Set your containers in a large baking pan to create a bain Marie, adding  enough hot water to the larger pan to come halfway up the sides of the molds or soufflé dish.

Bake about 45 minutes (less for individual molds) until the top is set.

Serve immediately, with a garnish of berries and whipped cream.

I sometimes use 2/3 cup (132gr) of sugar if the lemons are sweeter (Meyer lemons are a good example). I also line the ramekins, or soufflés with butter and almond powder or flour instead of sugar.

You can umold these for serving. The sauce will slide over the side but it still makes a great presentation.

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues.

3 thoughts on “Kitchen Detail: When Life Hands You Lemons

  1. Nancy G says:

    I love lemon anything. Is there any way to make the recipes more printer friendly?

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      That’s a good question, Nancy. I don’t know, but I will inquire!

    2. Nancy McKeon says:

      This link should take you to a printer-friendly version of the lemon recipes.

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