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When life gives you lemons

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Celebrating a windfall of late-winter Meyer lemons
The French 75 is a perfect cocktail. (Dreamstime)
Photo by Sarah LemonVery Lemon loaf
Photo by Sarah LemonMeyer lemon souffle

In a single week last month, life handed me a whole lotta lemons. I did not make lemonade.

A late winter windfall of Meyer lemons deserved more celebration, more ceremony than a ubiquitous beverage. A flask of gin and a bottle of Prosecco were all the impetus I needed to toast the specialty citrus season with one of my favorite cocktails: the French 75. Here’s to friends who gather Meyer lemons and then pay them forward.

Smaller, smoother, rounder and with a thinner rind than common lemons, Meyer lemons are known for their deep yellow color and heady aroma. Their pulp is low in acid, aromatic and sweet, qualities that endeared Meyer lemons over the past few decades to the fine-dining establishment.

Believed to be a natural hybrid of a lemon and either a mandarin or a sweet orange, Meyer lemons arrived in the United States from China in 1908. They proceeded to establish themselves in gardens and patio pots across California.

Trekking south to the Golden State, my friends struck … Meyer lemons — by mining backyard trees burdened under the weight of more fruits than residents could consume. My friends, who inhabit intentional communities in rural Josephine County, benefit from relationships cultivated over decades in Chico, California. If those sources don’t yield enough citrus, including oranges and grapefruits, the group of gleaners canvases the city for citrus trees whose fruit is neglected, or even a nuisance.

Perish the thought of too many Meyer lemons, which offer so many culinary outlets for their sweet-tart, faintly floral flavor. Anyone who finds lemons too sour should make it their mission to embrace the Meyer lemon. Just a spritz of juice and sprinkle of zest elevates almost anything.

One lemon yields about 1 tablespoon of zest and 2 to 3 tablespoons of juice. Meyer lemons’ lower acid, however, makes its juice unsuitable as a safeguard in home canning recipes.

While recipes do abound for baked goods, beverages, sauces and dressings featuring Meyer lemons, cooks shouldn’t assume the fruits are interchangeable with the common Lisbon or Eureka lemon varieties. To gauge Meyer lemon’s impact, I used it in two baked goods: a quick bread and a soufflé.

“Very lemon loaf” wasn’t developed for Meyer lemons. Generally speaking, when a dish calls for that characteristic lemon tang, a Meyer lemon doesn’t improve on the original.

But I figured the recipe’s title promised enough pucker for my family’s tastes, so I substituted Meyer lemon juice for regular in the cake’s glaze, resulting in a more subtle finish with widespread appeal. The cake, itself — baked in a lemon-embossed loaf pan — was rich and moist with a nicely browned exterior.

These soufflés did specify Meyer lemon to stunning effect. Lemon lovers will swoon over this dessert, which is so much easier and more accessible than the soufflé’s reputation. I first made soufflé several years ago and then wondered what took me so long.

The gloriously golden, airy results far outweighed the minimal effort to whip these up on a Sunday afternoon short on sunshine — but not the light, bright sparkle of lemon.

French 75

2 ounces gin

3/4 ounces fresh-squeezed Meyer or regular lemon juice

3/4 ounces simple syrup

2 ounces sparkling wine

In a cocktail shaker, combine the first three ingredients. Fill shaker with ice; shake vigorously. Strain into a Champagne glass. Top with the sparkling wine. Twist a lemon peel over glass rim so its oils mist into the drink, then garnish with expressed lemon peel. Makes 1 serving.

Very Lemon Loaf

4 large or 6 small lemons, scrubbed

1 stick unsalted butter (plus about 2 teaspoons for pan), softened

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1-1/2 cups sugar, divided

2 whole eggs, plus 1 yolk

1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese

Finely grate zest from the lemons. Measure 2 tablespoons zest and set aside. Juice lemons.

Butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Drop the butter into bowl of a stand mixer. On medium-high speed, beat until fluffy, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl as needed, for about 1 minute. Cascade in 1 cup of the sugar, still beating; beat until fluffy, for about 1 minute. Slide in the eggs and yolk; beat until fluffy. Beat in the ricotta, 2 tablespoons zest and 1/4 cup reserved juice. Slide in flour mixture; beat on low speed just to combine.

Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top. Bake in preheated oven until cake is golden-brown on top and a toothpick stabbed in center comes out flecked with crumbs, for 55 to 60 minutes. Cool, for 10 minutes. Run a blunt knife around sides to loosen edges. Turn out; set on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet.

While cake is baking, make glaze. Pour remaining 1/2 cup sugar into a medium saucepan. Measure in 1/4 cup reserved juice. Simmer until sugar has dissolved and syrup thickens a bit, for about 3 minutes. Brush glaze over top and sides of warm lemon loaf. (You may not use all glaze.) When cool (or just barely warm), slice and serve.

Makes 1 loaf.

Meyer Lemon Soufflés

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus more for preparing ramekins

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut up, plus more for preparing ramekins

4 or 5 large Meyer lemons

4 eggs, separated

Butter and sugar 6 (1/2-cup) ramekins; set them on a rimmed baking sheet. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Zest 2 of the lemons. Squeeze as many lemons as needed to measure 3/4 cup strained juice.

In a heavy medium saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with lemon zest and juice, 3/4 cup of the sugar and the butter. Whisk over medium heat until thick, for 10 to 12 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large, clean bowl. Let cool a few minutes.

Using a heavy-duty mixer with whisk attachment, whip the egg whites until foamy. With mixer running, sprinkle in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping to glossy, white peaks, for about 1 to 2 minutes.

Whisk a big spoonful of whites into lemon curd to lighten it. Scrape in remaining whites. Using a flexible spatula, fold curd into whites. Do this gently, so as not to crush meringue, and thoroughly, so as not to leave any white blobs. Ladle into prepared ramekins.

Slide sheet of ramekins into preheated oven and bake until golden and dramatically puffed, for 8 to 9 minutes. Taking care with hot ramekins, serve and eat right away.

Makes 6 small soufflés.

Lemon Squash

10 Meyer or regular lemons

3 cups sugar

Use a vegetable peeler or channel knife to zest 4 of the lemons. (You don’t have to be too careful about amount of pith.)

In a large, wide pot over high heat, bring 4 cups water to a boil, then add all the lemons, including zested ones, and strips of lemon peel. (Depending on size of pot, you might have to do this in batches; fruit must be submerged.) Cook for 2 minutes, then transfer lemons to a bowl to cool. In a separate, medium-sized saucepan, reserve 2 cups lemon cooking water and boiled strips of lemon peel.

When lemons are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, then juice them into a large liquid measuring cup, straining and discarding pulp, seeds and spent lemon halves. Yield should be 1 to 1-1/2 cups.

Add the sugar to lemon cooking water and lemon peels in saucepan; bring to a boil over high heat; cook for 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Discard lemon peels or reserve them for candying. Stir in lemon juice until well-incorporated.

Fill 4 half-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Wipe jar rims well and place lids and rings, tightening until just secure. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath, starting timing from moment water returns to a boil. Remove jars from water bath, setting them upright on a folded towel to cool completely. Make sure seals are tight before storing, for up to 1 year.

Makes 32 ounces.

VARIATIONS: To make Lemon Honey Squash, replace 1 cup of the sugar with 1 cup honey.

To make Ginger Lemon Cold-Be-Gone, cut a 1-inch piece of peeled, fresh ginger root into coin-size slices and add them to boiling mixture of lemon water, zest and sugar; discard ginger after cooking. Stir cooled mixture into hot water as a cold soother.

To make a bourbon or cognac sidecar, combine 1-1/2 ounces liquor and 1 ounce Lemon Squash. Serve over ice.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.