- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Tart and sour rather than mild and sweet are qualities usually associated with lemons, but that was before the Meyer lemon came onto the scene.

Long a favorite of restaurant chefs, the Meyer lemon has made its way across the country from California groves. These lemons have such a pure, clear lemon taste that they are often called the “true” lemon.

Frank Meyer was a plant explorer and U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who discovered the lemons growing in yards in China. In 1908, Meyer introduced them to the United States, and the lemons were named after him.

Meyer lemons have been a long time coming into commercial production. The original trees turned out to carry a virus that could kill other varieties of citrus trees. In the 1940s, most of the Meyer lemon trees were destroyed to save other citrus trees.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists at the University of California, Riverside, developed an improved Meyer lemon that could not carry the virus.

This opened the door for commercial production and more widespread availability of the fruit. The majority of these lemons are now grown in California, but they also grow in Texas and Florida.

Although their true origin has never been established, Meyer lemons are most likely a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. This would account for their characteristic sweet and less-acidic taste, rounded orange shape, golden orange flesh and hint of orange flavor.

Meyer lemons are quite juicy and an average lemon will yield at least 1/4 cup of juice. If you hold one of the lemons in your hand and give it a slight squeeze, you can feel the juice through its thin skin.

Theskin varies from a deep yellow color to almost orange.The darker the skin, the riper the lemon. Look for lemons that have a smooth, firm skin, and no soft spots or hints of mold.

Fresh Meyer lemons can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. One good way to extend the season is to squeeze the juice and freeze it in an ice cube tray. Then remove the frozen juice cubes from the tray and store them in a tightly sealed plastic freezer bag for up to two months.

Use Meyer lemons as you would other lemons, but remember that because of the lemons’ sweet nature, recipes that use them may be better off with a bit less sugar.

An example is my recipe for homemade lemonade that is made by mixing only 4 teaspoons of sugar with 6 tablespoons of Meyer lemon juice and 1 cup of water.

When using the peel and juice in a recipe, be sure to grate the peel before squeezing the juice.

As with any grated citrus peel, use only the colored part of the rind. Any white pith will be bitter. The skin is thin, and one lemon produces about 1 teaspoon of grated zest.

Lemon is a natural partner with chicken. Before baking chicken breasts, try marinating them in Meyer lemon juice and a sprinkling of brown sugar. As they bake, the lemon slices become lightly candied.

The juice and zest can make a lemon cake and lemon cream cheese frosting that has an extraordinary lemon flavor but without a sour or bitter aftertaste.

The lemon cake accompanying this story bakes in a tube pan and is perfect for serving to a picnic or tea party crowd. This pie is best served cold on the day that it is prepared.

Once you try this extremely juicy lemon with its subtle citrus flavor, you will be hooked. Just be sure to stock up on a few bags of this succulent fruit while it is in season. Come May, Meyer lemons will be scarce until November when the new crop arrives.

Meyer lemon cream pie

CRUST:

13 cups graham cracker crumbs

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FILLING:

13/4 cups whole milk

6 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1 cup cold heavy (whipping) cream whipped to firm peaks with 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla

Butter a 9-inch pie pan.

In a medium bowl, stir graham cracker crumbs, cinnamon and melted butter together. Press crumb mixture evenly over the inside of the pie pan. Bake the crust for 6 minutes in preheated 325-degree oven. Set aside to cool.

In a heavy medium saucepan, heat milk until it is hot and a few bubbles form around edge. Do not boil it. Whisk egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and flour in a bowl until smooth. Slowly pour hot milk into egg mixture, whisking constantly.

Pour mixture into saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes until mixture boils and thickens, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Strain lemon cream into a medium bowl.

Stir in lemon zest. Press a piece of plastic wrap onto lemon cream and poke a few holes in plastic wrap with tip of a knife to let steam escape. Refrigerate until cool to the touch, at least 1 hour or overnight. Spread lemon cream over prepared crumb crust.

Pipe or spoon whipped cream around edge of lemon cream. Serve cold.

Makes 8 servings.

Chicken breasts with Meyer lemons

1/4 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice

1 clove finely chopped garlic

6 boneless chicken breast halves, about 2 pounds

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1½ cups chicken broth

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel

12 thin slices Meyer lemon, pitted

2 tablespoons packed light-brown sugar

Meyer lemon wedges, optional

In a shallow nonreactive dish, such as glass or ceramic, stir lemon juice and garlic together. Put chicken in dish, turning it to coat both sides with the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

In a medium bowl, stir flour, salt and pepper together. Dip chicken in the seasoned flour to coat lightly.

In a large frying pan (preferably nonstick) over medium heat, heat oil and cook chicken until it browns lightly, turning once to brown both sides. Transfer chicken to a 13-by-9-inch nonreactive baking pan.

Pour chicken broth into hot frying pan, stirring to scrape up any brown bits. Sprinkle lemon peel over chicken and top each piece with 2 lemon slices. Pour chicken broth over and sprinkle brown sugar on top.

Bake in preheated 375-degree oven uncovered, basting once with the broth, until chicken is done and no longer pink in the center, and the top is golden-brown, about 40 minutes.

Remove lemon slices and discard before serving chicken. Spoon some of the pan juices over each breast and serve with Meyer lemon wedges so guests can sprinkle juice from wedges over chicken, if desired.

Makes 6 servings.

Meyer lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

CAKE:

Oil for greasing pan

Wax paper or parchment paper for pan

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

2 cups sugar

1 cup canola or corn oil

½ cup fresh Meyer lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup sour cream

FROSTING:

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

2 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Oil bottom, sides and center tube of a 9-inch or 10-inch fixed-bottom tube pan with at least 33/4-inch high sides. Line bottom of pan with wax paper or parchment paper and oil the paper.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until thickened and lightened to a cream color, about 2 minutes.

On low speed, mix in oil, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla until blended. Blend in flour mixture and incorporate the two, then mix in sour cream until no white streaks remain.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake on center rack of preheated 325-degree oven until top feels firm and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 5 minutes.

Let cake rest in pan for 15 minutes, then run a knife around edge of cake and center tube to loosen it. Invert onto a wire rack. Discard paper liner. Leave cake, bottom side up, to cool and frost.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer on low speed to beat butter, cream cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla until smooth.

Beat in confectioners’ sugar until frosting is smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Use a spatula to spread frosting over top, sides and in center hole of the cake. Cake can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Makes 12 servings.

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