Many recipe books, especially international ones, routinely ask for the juice of a lemon or the zest of a lemon. The problem with this is that there are very few places in India where we actually find a real “lemon”, as opposed to a lime or nimbu. Hence, our recipes suffer for lack of sourcing of the ingredient itself and quantities often go haywire.
A lemon is large and oval and has roughly three times the juice of a lime and much more than that in terms of “zestable” skin. Because lemons are so much bigger than limes, oils extracted from the skin are used in juices, jams and natural extracts. Fresh pressed lemon juice, “citron pressé”, is commonly served in French and Italian cafes, with plenty of ice and sugar and water on the side, much like our nimbu pani. While limes are primarily used as a souring agent, lemons are used for their aroma and their zest, which is profuse and perfect for desserts and confectionery. Lemons are milder than limes in acidity and are, therefore, perfect to establish a balance between fat and acid; excellent for fish and an indispensable ingredient for curing raw dishes such as steak tartare and for marination.
I have found fabulous lemons in India, in the region of Nainital in Uttarakhand and I have also seen some in the South, which apparently came from Coorg. That’s about it, I’m afraid, except for my garden in Pune, where I have a well-fruiting lemon tree, which I brought from Spain as a sapling several years ago. Anywhere citrus trees grow should, theoretically, I suppose, be ideal for lemons, too.
Wondering why all this fuss about lemons when nimbu seems to do the trick in providing a nice, sour taste? Lemon, of course, is a close relative of the lime and may have, oddly enough, originated in India or China. It was the Arabs, though, who were responsible for their cultivation. They then travelled to Greece, Italy and the rest of Europe. The best lemons today are from Italy, southern Spain, Sicily, California and Florida, but are most at home in the Mediterranean. Amalfi, the fashionable coastline area in Campania, is where some of the best lemons in Italy come from, although the largest volumes are from Sicily. The aroma and flavour are strongest in the skin, which is used to make that intoxicating liqueur, limoncello.
I spent more than a week in Menton in the south of France recently, which renewed my interest in and love of this fruit. Menton is the last French town on the French Riviera before you hit Italy and is famous for its lemons. Menton is famous for its lemon tart, a scrumptious little affair beginning with a light, slightly crumbly, buttery short crust pastry and ending with an unctuous lemon cream filling. It is sold at all patisseries throughout France and each one has its own recipe. I am a particular fan of lemon tarts, or “tarte au citron”, and have done considerable legwork to find the best. My conclusion is, short of taking a flight to France, it is well worth your while making your own lemon curd for this purpose. Commercial lemon tarts in India tend to have artificial colour and the filling tends to be thickened with cornflour. Ugh! This is my favourite recipe from my new book in the Simple Cooking Series, Simple Cooking for the Sweet Tooth.
Tarte au Citron
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup sugar
1 cup cream
½ tsp finely shredded zest of lemon
A 10-inch pre-baked pie crust (recipe below)
In the mixing bowl, put lemon juice and sugar and whisk until well blended. Add eggs and whisk well until the eggs are incorporated, then whisk in the zest and cream. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Pour mixture into the pie crust and bake for 25 minutes, or until the custard is set. Remove from the oven and let cool before slicing.
Ingredients for the pie crust:
1 ¾ cup flour
A pinch of salt
1 ½ tbsp sugar
1 cup butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp water
In the bowl of the food processor, put flour, salt, sugar, egg and butter and turn the machine on, processing until ingredients form a cohesive whole. Keeping the machine on, add the water all at once, watching it carefully. Turn off the machine as soon as the dough binds and comes away from the sides of the bowl. Roll into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for one hour.
Once you are ready to use the dough, remove from the refrigerator, unwrap, and press the dough down with the heel of your hand to flatten. Use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough out, on a floured work surface, to quarter-inch thickness. Roll out dough and line the pan. Gently fold the dough in half on itself and transfer to the pan. Pat the dough into the corners of the pan and either fold over or cut away the excess. Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until almost cooked.
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