What Not to Do With Meyer Lemons

I apologize in advance for what you’re about to see. It’s not pretty, and frankly, it probably doesn’t belong in a family-friendly forum like this. Hopefully your small children are in another room – if they’re not you might want to cover their eyes or otherwise distract them before scrolling past the photo below. I don’t want to be responsible for any nightmares.

Meyer Lemon Massacre

Pretty gruesome, I know. So what is it? Well, it’s a failed experiment that proves two things: a) that I should never bake after midnight, and b) that just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it will be good, particularly when something I’ve never actually tasted before is involved.

The unfamiliar element, as you probably guessed, was meyer lemons. This may come as a surprise to many of you, since these little mandarin-lemon hybrids have been old hat to North Americans for years. In Scotland, though, we just had regular lemons, and until I brought home a bag of meyers last week the closest I had come to tasting one was reading rapturous descriptions of their singular flavor. ‘Sweet’ was the one word everyone used, and it was precisely this that led me to assume these these orange-yellow beauties could stand in for other less-acidic citrus. I was so confident of this, in fact, that I gambled on a recipe in which citrus plays just about every role in the show: Claudia Roden’s sephardic orange and almond cake, which, if you don’t know the one, makes a deliciously moist confection out of the entire fruit – pith, peel and all. And if that weren’t risky enough, I decided to up the stakes and and bake some lightly sugared whole lemon slices into the bottom – a kind of lemon upside-down cake, if you will – which would soften and caramelize and glisten attractively when the cake was turned out. Or so I hoped.

Well, as you can deduce from the photo, this cake was a disaster in more ways than one. Yes, meyer lemons are slightly sweeter than regular ones, but not by much – even increasing the sugar slightly didn’t tame its mouth-puckering sourness. The bigger problem, though, was the peel, which is every bit as bitter as regular lemons, resulting in a cake so acrid I nearly gagged. And those delicate little lemon slices? They were bitter too, and about as tough as leather. Then, to add insult to injury, the cake fell apart when I turned it out of the pan too early, sending crumbs and leathery lemon slices everywhere (see above, baking after midnight). Honestly, the whole thing gave the word ‘failure’ new meaning.

The experience was so traumatic, in fact, I was tempted to give up on meyer lemons entirely, but since I still had a couple lying around I decided it would only be fair to give them a second chance. But in what? Well, after chucking the remains of my disaster into the trash I poked through the fridge and found I had exactly what I needed to repeat a dessert I made for a small get-together at my dad’s house back in December, a sweet-tart lemon pudding cake from Lori Longbotham that everyone had loved, despite the fact that I botched the recipe by accidentally doubling the butter (which really wasn’t a problem, it just made it impossible to eat more than a very small serving).

Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake

As good as this homely dessert was with regular lemons and twice the butter, with meyers (and the correct amount of dairy fat) it was sublime. It had no hint of acrid bitterness, just a delightful orange-lemon fragrance that was bright, sassy and delicately floral, with the kind of intriguing texture you might get if you crossed a souffle with a cheesecake – creamy, soft and light. We ate it curled under the blankets while watching a DVD the other night, and no offense to the movie, but this dessert stole the show – it was like a breath of warm, summery sunshine on a cold February night. It was not only good enough to erase the bitter taste in my mouth left by the previous disaster, it left me completely enamored of these lovely little fruits. I now understand perfectly why everyone gets so excited to see them come into season, since when used with care, they can transform good recipes into great ones. Just, please, if you ever hear the words ‘whole-meyer-lemon upside down cake’ exit my mouth again, lock me up in a lemon-less place until I come to my senses, okay?


Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake

I should warn you: this version of the classic lemon pudding cake doesn’t separate into well-defined layers like many others do; instead it kind of gradually transitions from firm to soft. That said, it’s definitely the most delicious one I’ve ever had. There’s only one problem: I can’t for the life of me figure out what to serve with it. I tried whipped cream, but it’s really creamy enough without it; I also tried berry sauce, but the delicate meyer lemon flavor was overwhelmed. Some kind of fresh fruit might work, perhaps, or maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Then again, it’s pretty darn perfect all by itself, particularly when you don’t have anyone but yourself to impress. Oh, and in case you don’t have access to meyer lemons, I’ve included proportions for regular lemons too.
Serves: 6

Source: Adapted from Luscious Lemon Desserts by Lori Longbotham

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick/60g) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated meyer (or regular) lemon zest
3 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
1/3 cup (80ml) meyer lemon juice (or 1/4 cup/60ml regular lemon juice)
1/3 cup (45g) all-purpose flour
8 oz (250g) sour cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Butter a 1-qt. (1-ltr) souffle dish. Have ready a large baking pan which will accommodate your souffle dish.

Beat the butter at medium speed until light. Add the sugar and zest and beat until combined. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add half the lemon juice, half the flour and half the sour cream and beat until smooth; repeat with remaining lemon juice, flour and sour cream.

Beat the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Increase speed to medium-high, add the salt, and beat to stiff peaks. Add one-quarter of the whites to the lemon mixture and gently fold in. Continue to fold in whites one-quarter at a time. Transfer it to the prepared souffle dish. Place the dish in the larger pan and carefully pour boiling water around it to a depth of 1 inch (2.5cm).

Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, until the top is golden brown, the center is just set, and the top springs back when lightly touched. Remove from the water bath and cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes.

Lightly dust with powdered sugar before serving (I didn’t bother) and serve warm, scooping up some of the pudding at the bottom of the dish along with the cake.

The Great Spaghetti Compromise

‘Our’ Ragù Bolognese

I wish I had a more picturesque story to go along with this recipe. I considered for a moment making up one about about a rustic trattoria in northern Italy, a wrinkled old grandmother in the kitchen, a lot of hand gestures and an almost-illegible recipe scribbled on an empty flour sack. But then I thought better of it. No, it’s better you know the truth, that where this dish really has its origins is in stubbornness, intolerance, and marital discord, with a little bit of curry thrown in for good measure. But don’t worry, it has a happy ending regardless.

Okay, I’ll cut to the chase: spaghetti bolognese almost destroyed my marriage. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s true that the iconic pasta sauce from Bologna ranks as one of the most persistent and unresolvable sources of conflict we’ve faced in more than a decade together.

It’s kind of silly, since I didn’t even grow up with spaghetti bolognese. In fact, when I was a kid, pasta was a one-trick pony. Nobody had ever heard of ‘bolognese’; what we ate with spaghetti was ‘spaghetti sauce’, and the ritual surrounding it was quite simple: boil spaghetti, open jar, heat and serve, preferably alongside a can of Kraft parmesan. I simply took it for granted that the reason for being of any plate of spaghetti was to be a carrier substance for cheese. It wasn’t until I was much older, and actually made it to Italy, that I tasted a version of the famed ragù bolognese, and fell in love at first forkful. I loved how utterly unlike those bland sauces in a jar it was, how much more like meat than tomato it tasted, and how for the first time in my life I didn’t feel the need to drown the plate in parmesan.

Manuel, on the other hand, actually grew up with bolognese, and when we met it was one of the things he cooked most frequently. In Germany, though, like in most of the rest of Europe, ‘bolognese’ it’s a catchall term for a tomato-based sauce with ground meat, and most versions bear only a passing resemblance to the Italian original. Manuel’s version, which he based on one his mother used to make, contains the better part of a bottle of red wine, copious amounts of canned tomato puree, whatever dried herbs he had on and no small amount of sugar – as well as (whenever he thought I wasn’t looking) a few shakes of curry powder. He would start by kneading the onion, garlic and herbs into some pork, which he would then fry the living daylights out of before adding in the liquid, and the whole thing from start to finish took well under an hour. It certainly wasn’t bad (that is, as long as he restrained his curry impulses), but it always left me yearning for the big, meaty flavors of the real thing.

The problems started when I bought a copy of Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table, a superb book on the food of Emilia-Romagna, and one by one started working through her chapter on ragùs. Each and every one was a hearty, robust affair that simmered on the stove for hours and fed us for days. They featured more types of meat than I thought was physically possible to fit into a bite of spaghetti: beef, pork, veal, pancetta, prosciutto, even poultry gizzards, and naturally everything was bound by meat broth. As a rule they featured white wine instead of red, little or no garlic, no herbs save for a bay leaf or two, and very little tomato – a tablespoon or two at most. In other words, they offered meat without much distraction, but they were also just what I’d been craving.

Manuel, on the other hand, hated them. They were too beefy, too dry, not sweet enough, not acidic enough, and the meat was too bland. It was psychological, I think; if he hadn’t grown up eating something that masqueraded under the same name he probably would have loved them, but he couldn’t get over the fact that this unfamiliar stuff was what his favorite comfort food was ‘supposed’ to be. And soon enough, it became a tug of war every time we decided to have pasta: let me make my bolognese, no no, you made yours last time, I want mine this time. And the more we insisted, the more polarized we got until we were both almost unwilling to eat the other’s recipe. I’m ashamed to admit it even started getting nasty – one day we didn’t speak to each other for an entire evening after getting in a shouting match over the relative merits of red wine versus white.

A middle way was needed, we both realized, before spaghetti (of all things!) became the undoing of our union. Instead of the incessant bickering over whose version was better, we decided to construct a recipe that would make us both happy. And so we started compromising. He agreed to drop the dried herbs, accept white wine and live with considerably less tomato than he was used to. I agreed to throw in some garlic, sweeten the sauce a smidge and, after much convincing, spice the meat at least an hour before I intended to start cooking (which I assumed would be totally wasted effort since the meat was about to simmer in a highly-flavored sauce for several hours). We also agreed to keep the traditional carrot, celery and meat broth, add pancetta for depth, and since we were beating a new path already, we threw caution to the wind and added a bit of fresh rosemary.

I don’t know what either one of us expected to result from that compromise – a sauce we could both tolerate, maybe – but what came out of that pot after a couple of hours on the stove left us both stunned. It was incredible. The flavor was every bit as deep and robust as the traditional ragùs, full of brown, meaty succulence, but it was also brighter and more balanced with its touch of acidity and sweetness. And Manuel’s insistence on pre-spicing the meat was a stroke of genius, I have to say, since the garlic and rosemary remained embedded within each tender nugget, and exploded with flavor under our teeth. We ate that spaghetti like it was the last thing we ever would, and when the dust had settled it was clear that not only had we managed to inhale an entire batch between the two of us, but this was one sauce that would feature on our table again and again.

So, there you have it. No grandmothers or trattorias, but a compromise, a rescued marriage and a wickedly tasty pasta sauce to boot. ‘Our’ ragù may not pass muster in Bologna, or bring back cherished childhood memories, but that doesn’t really matter – the important thing is that we both look forward to it, and even more tellingly, I haven’t caught him even once eyeing the jar of curry powder.

‘Our’ Ragù Bolognese

Ragùs are very funny things – who would’ve thought they were so intensely personal? Then again, with their complex ingredient lists and long, drawn-out preparations there is a lot of room for each individual cook to leave their mark. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the last word in ragùs for me, but it is one of the best I’ve ever had. Of course its appeal partly relies on top-notch ingredients: good pancetta, high-quality meat etc., but there are also a few techniques involved that help it develop its flavor, and which could easily be employed in any recipe. One is salting and flavoring the meat separately, at least an hour before cooking, which is surprisingly discernible in the finished dish. The second is browning both the vegetables and meat well before adding the liquid, which contributes a wonderful depth to the finished sauce. Finally, the cooking must not be rushed; the sauce should slowly reduce over the lowest heat possible for two to three hours to give all the flavors the chance to properly meld. You can also make it a day ahead and reheat it just before serving, in which case it’ll taste even better.
Serves: 4-6

For the meat:
1.5 lbs (700g) pork, or half pork and half beef (preferably organic, free-range)
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz (120g) pancetta, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 fat carrot, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 cup (125ml) whole milk
1 cup (250ml) dry white wine
3 cups (750ml) chicken stock, preferably low-sodium (if your stock is very salty dilute it with a little water before measuring)
1/3 cup (80ml) tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon sugar

1 lb. fresh or dried spaghetti, tagliatelle, or the pasta of your choice, for serving

At least an hour and up to a day before starting to cook, knead together the ground meat, crushed garlic, chopped rosemary, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate.

In a large heavy pot over medium heat, heat the oil and add the pancetta, onions, carrot and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are golden and have started to caramelize, about 25-30 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and add the meat, breaking it up thoroughly with a fork and stirring constantly until medium brown in color, about 10 minutes. Add the milk, stirring until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the wine, stock, tomato paste and bay leaf, stir well and bring to a boil.

Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and allow to cook at a gentle simmer for 2-3 hours. At the end of its cooking time the ragu should be juicy and thick, but not liquidy; if after two hours it still looks too wet, uncover and raise the heat slightly. Stir in the sugar, and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Keep warm.

Just before serving, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of its cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot and toss with the ragù, adding a little reserved cooking water if necessary to help the sauce evenly coat the noodles. Serve immediately, with freshly-grated parmesan cheese on the side.