Growing up, I knew my Uncle Tom had a lemon tree. It was one of the few definitive facts about him in my childish head. As far as I knew, he lived in California and ate tabbouleh all the time, his hair stood strait up no matter what he did to it, his dog was named Fang and Fang was ugly, his wife was named Charyn and was Jewish, and he had a lemon tree in his back yard. That was all.
The lemon tree became an indelible mark in my young psyche, seemingly representing how far away my uncle’s life was from mine. As my mother’s younger brother, the two being the last in a long line of siblings, they were very close and I heard stories of their Trenton, NJ childhood together every day. But as close as they could be, their visits were rare, and the lemon tree was to me, a symbol of their distance. We had apple trees in our yard, our neighbors had pear trees. I knew people who’s trees had plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and even nectarines fruiting from their branches, but no one had a lemon tree. To me, it was exotic and unreal, and kept the reality of his life as far away as a child can imagine.
It’s been a few years since my last visit to his home in Santa Cruz, California, but last weekend I flew down for my cousin Chloe’s Bat Mitzvah. When I arrived at Uncle Tom’s Victorian, just a block off Santa Cruz’s cute down town strip, the little girl in me went strait through the living room to look out the back door to check on the lemon tree. Sure enough, the squat tree was there, as gnarled as I remembered it, heavy with the yellow fruit. I smiled, remembering my first impression of it years ago, an underwhelming sense of it’s size, and an overwhelming desire to pick a lemon, just to hold.
The next morning I prepared to treat my two toe-headed Californian cousins, Heather and Chloe, to a morning cake in honor of their back to back birthdays. Greeted by my Aunt Charyn’s incredible kitchen, the walls laden with equipment, and heavy with 20 years of her amazing home cooking, I began. I measured the sugar and flour, found the butter, dug out some eggs from the refrigerator, and recruited help to locate vanilla extract. Saving the best for last, I walked out the back door and approached the tree preparing to choose a small fortune of the yellow gems. It took me a while to make my choice, relishing every second of the experience, sizing up the shape and color of the lemons, then choosing those that were plump and ripe, but also within reach.
As I rounded the tree, each lemon looking yellower than the last until they started looking a little orange. I stepped in, taking a orange tinted lemon in my hand, feeling the thin skin, and stopped short.
“This isn’t…..” I thought. “Oh my I think it is!”
I pressed the lemon to my face, inhaling the mandarin perfume I knew would be there. Ecstatic, my thoughts raced, grasping the reality that lay before me. My uncle doesn’t have a lemon tree in his back yard. He has a Meyer Lemon tree.
Meyer lemons, sometimes referred to as the “sweet” lemon, are thought to be a hybrid. The mandarin tones are unmistakable in this lemon, the best I have had tasted like a puckery tangerine. The citrus was brought to America from China by a United States department of agriculture employee, Frank Meyer, in 1908. The tree gained popularity until it was discovered to be a symptomless carrier of a virus that rendered much of the citrus producing trees dead or fruitless. The majority of the early Meyer Lemon trees were eliminated, and not seen again until the late 1950′s when a virus free tree was discovered.
The popularity of this lemon seemed limited until Alice Water’s resurrected it and shared with it the gaining momentum of her fresh new California cuisine. Years later, and a few states away, I began the momentum of my own career carrying the knowledge of this exotic specialty lemon. With a short season in our supermarkets, Meyer lemons are not only hard to get a hold of, but expensive! I have grown accustomed to treating the Meyer lemon as fruit royalty, coveting the few I do spend my hard earned money on, and using the juice wisely, and only in the dishes meant to highlight it’s flavor.
Last week I myself felt royal, sipping fresh Meyer lemonade while grating the zest of as many Meyer lemons as I liked into my cakes. I made a pair of cakes using a deceptively simple recipe dubbed “skillet cake” by my other half, Russell. Mixed with no more that a flick of the wrist, this cake is baked in the cast iron skillet used to melt the butter for the batter. From the oven the cake emerges golden with a thin crispy top, the sweet aroma of buttery lemon intoxicating you as you remove it.
Because these lemons deserve all the attention they can get, the cakes were served with a dusting of powdered sugar, a jar of Meyer lemon slices to squeeze over the cake, and a pitcher of fresh sour cream, sweetened and thinned with Meyer lemon juice. These cakes were meant to celebrate my cousin’s birthday’s, but became a celebration of the Meyer Lemons they are so lucky to have growing in their back yard.
Standard lemons will do fine in this cake if you find yourself without the Meyers, but as they are peaking in their comercial season, do try to find them. You will be amply rewarded. Californians, you have no excuse, the little girl in me still believes every california back yard has a Meyer Lemon Tree.
Meyer Lemon Skillet Cake
3/4 cups sugar
Zest of 2 Meyer lemons
juice of 1 Meyer lemon
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/2 cup melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
1. Place an 8 inch cast iron skillet over low heat, and add the butter. Slowly let the butter melt while you mix the batter.
2. Place the sugar in a large bowl and add the lemon zest. Rub the zest and sugar between your fingers until the zest is evenly distributed through out the sugar.
3. Add the eggs to the lemon sugar and whisk until fully incorporated. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and mix again, until the liquid is distributed evenly.
4. Add the flour and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until it is evenly distributed.
5. By this time, the butter should be melted. Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the butter into the batter. Set the skillet aside and mix the butter into the batter evenly.
6. Pour the batter back into the skillet, spreading it evenly across the pan. Transfer the skillet into the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The top should just be turning golden, and feel firm to the touch.