A Lemon in Winter: Sunshine From a Crate

Vicki, a fellow enthusiast from the Compuserv Writer’s Forum, has sent me a box of Meyer’s lemons from her backyard tree, and the experience of picking up a box of lemons at the post office was likely quite similar to what my great great (great great..) grandmother would have experienced in 1781 had a cousin from Boston or New York sent her a luxury gift of expensive citrus from one of those port cities.

meyers1Actually.. not dissimilar to what my great grandmother would have experienced in 1881, tucked as she was up on a rural farm without access to many luxuries.  Or my grandmother in 1931..

The truth of it is that while a good many exotic foods, such as lemons and pomegranates,  have made their way the shelves of the large regional supermarkets which serve our rural communities available does not mean accessible.  Lemons and pomegranates are expensive, very often on the verge of spoilage, and frequently small or inferior. Purchasing a box of even ordinary, thick skinned and dry, lemons, is well beyond the carrying capacity of my weekly food budget. Purchasing even a single Meyer’s lemon isn’t an option, at any price.  They aren’t sold here.

So this is a rare gift, sunshine yellow fruit in perfect condition, round and smooth and heavy in hand. The box sits on our table  glowing in the lamplight, while I hover over it like a hen with a clutch of new eggs.

Lemons were used, extensively, by British and American cooks, by the mid-18th century.  Even poorer households have been exposed to citrus fruit by the time of the American Revolution.  Unfortunately, while the Meyer Lemon may have been around in the 18th century,  it wasn’t a variety British or American cooks would have been familiar with. It is thought to be a cross between a lemon and either a mandarin orange or a tangerine, and with its high sugar content and thin skin, likely would have been a poor candidate for trips across the ocean packed in the leaky holds of wooden ships even if traders had been familiar with it.

meyers12

You just know this is going to call for eggs..

No, this plant did not make it to the United States until 1909 when Frank Nicholas Meyer, an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture collected a sample of the plant on a trip to China. In China it is considered an ornamental plant, grown in pots. Here too it was grown as an ornamental until the lemon was rediscovered by chefs in the late 20th century, becoming a fixture in California Cuisine, and then popularized by television personality Martha Stuart.

Thus it seems a bit silly to use these lemons in 18th century recipes… and at the same time, so irresistible!

I considered lemon scones, lemon shortbread, and lemon cakes before settling on an old fashioned and largely forgotten dessert, the bread pudding.  In New England the bread pudding is Indian Pudding, a classic recipe of spices, cornmeal, and molasses.  Indian Pudding, once a popular dessert, has become a rare treat at autumn fairs, where it is sold alongside apple pies and apple crisp, hot and sweet with a scoop of ice cream melting into it.

Any other bread or spoon pudding has gone the way of the dodo.  Perhaps it is because spoon pudding simply doesn’t transport well.  It is best served warm, right out of the oven, when it is at its light, airy, delicious, best.

With roots as in the 18th century bread pudding seemed the perfect use for a few of these precious lemons.

Several recipe sites credit Luscious Lemon Desserts by Lori Longbotham for a recipe for Meyer’s Lemon “Pudding Cake,”  what we here in New England would call a spoon or bread pudding.  I modified the recipe to accommodate my primitive kitchen, but if you work under modern conditions, and this recipe is any indication of the quality of Lori’s work… I highly recommend this cookbook!

Meyer’s Lemon Bread Pudding

1/4 teaspoon salt
3 farm fresh eggs, at room temperature, separated
4 tablespoons unsalted butter @ room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated meyer lemon zest
1/3 cup meyer lemon juice
1/3 cup white flour
1 C sour cream

You’re going to be cooking the spoon bread in a water bath… which means you’ll either be putting individual oven proof single serving bowls or ramekins, or a single tall sided casserole.  Either way, you’ll be setting the container in a pan of water.  Fill a 2″ or so deep baking dish 3/4 full with water.  Set your single serve bowls or casserole dish in the water.

Begin by separating your eggs.  Whip the egg whites until they are frothy, then add the salt, and whip the whites until they are stiff and hold a peak.  Set aside.

Since beating egg whites into fluffy peaks by hand takes some time I don’t turn on the oven until the egg whites are ready.. turn on the oven to 350 degrees.. or.. do it before you whip the eggs if you have machinery in your kitchen!

Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, then add the lemon zest, 1 egg yolk, a bit of lemon juice, and half the flour.  Beat together until smooth and creamy.  Add the remaining lemon juice, an egg yolk, and the remaining flour.. beat until creamy.  Finally, add the last egg yolk and the sour cream.  Beat together until smooth and creamy.

Fold in the egg whites, 1/4 at a time, careful not to take too much of the air out of them as you fold them in.  Spoon your batter into your baking dishes or casserole and place the baking dish containing the water and your spoon bread(s) carefully into the oven.

Bake for 45 minutes for individual portions, 55 minutes for a casserole dish.  Small ramekins will yield 6-8 servings.  I use old bowls.. and get 4 servings.  The puddings will be cracked and lightly browned on the surface when done.

Spoon puddings are best when warm, although putting ice cream on this pudding would be gilding the lily.  If you must add something creamy, add a dollop of whipped cream. Do try to remember there’s a cup of sour cream in this.. and while Outlander Kitchen would tell you Ith gu leòir! (Eat Plenty), I’m going to have to say “eat in moderation.”  This is a pretty rich dish!

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