By Peg Rhodes
Mamma Agata’s Torta di Limone.
Peg Rhodes poses under lemon trees at Amalfi Cooking School.
Special to the Courier
Lemons have earned an unfair bad rap. From unflattering reference to a poor automobile choice (or other commodity) to a negative turn of events deserving of new life as, yes, lemonade - their culinary usefulness is, sadly, underappreciated.
In our 30 years in Prescott, we've received bulging bags of lemons from friends who love/beg to share their bounty from Valley relatives. From December to April, huge lemons, often grapefruit-sized, appear in plastic sacks at front-door steps, water coolers, office desks, anywhere that three or more people gather. Like the prolific fall zucchini in search of a home - Valley lemons abound.
I welcome these homegrown beauties. Their thick skin and rich essential oils emit an intense zesty aroma that remind me of the oblong-shaped Sorrento lemons grown throughout Capri and the Amalfi Coast, and used to produce a locally favored liqueur called limoncello.
As recipients, we immediately shave the skin (avoiding white pith) into strips. This top layer of golden zest is rich in limonen, a health-protective phytochemical. Bagged and frozen, the zest is ready to reappear chopped or slivered into many dishes, from appetizers to desserts. No concentrated substitutes in yellow plastic in our fridge! The extra-sweet-tart juice is frozen into cubes and zip-locked, ready to add lip-puckering, mouth-watering flavor bursts to sauces, dressings, beverages and baked goods.
Got lemons? Scrub them with a stiff brush. For mixed use, grate some rind and peel the rest. Dry grated peel before freezing to prevent frozen clumps. Spread a single layer on a baking sheet. Dry one hour in 200F oven. Cool; freeze in airtight zipped bags. For strips, use a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife. Remove any white pith. Don't fret over torn strips; you'll be chopping them up anyway. Freeze in zipped bags with all air pressed out.
Lemon-aides: Lemons yield more juice at room temperature. To extract maximum juice, microwave 30 seconds; roll on the counter with your palm. Lemon equivalents: one medium lemon yields 2-3 tablespoons juice, 3 teaspoons grated rind; 6-7 lemons yield 1 cup juice.
Lemons on-call. Go beyond lemonade, courtesy of Sunkist Growers:
A lemon slice in the cookie jar keeps cookies soft.
Grated peel and some juice brightens the taste of meat loaf or stew.
Instead of salt, squeeze a lemon into pasta cooking water.
Substitute lemon juice for vinegar for livelier salad dressings.
Veggies like asparagus, broccoli, and green beans sparkle with lemon butter: to 1/4 cup butter, add grated peel and juice of half a lemon. Also delicious over cooked noodles.
Add grated zest to pie dough and to melted butter for popped corn.
Remove the smell of onion, fish or bleach from hands, cutting boards, knives by rubbing with a lemon wedge.
Below is my version of limoncello, adapted from my Sicilian friend Michele's recipe. He uses 90-proof grain alcohol, mixes everything all at once, then waits 15 weeks. The lemon cake is the one we enjoyed at Mamma Agata's Amalfi Cooking School.
(Italian Cordial Liqueur)
In a 4-quart non-metallic container (e.g.: large ice-tea jar), place peel from 15 lemons (NO white pith). Add 750ml 80-100 proof vodka. Cover, place in a cool, dark place for six weeks; shake occasionally. Heat 4 cups water, 5 cups sugar in a saucepan; cool to lukewarm. Stir into lemon-vodka mixture with another 750ml vodka. Wait six weeks. Strain through cheesecloth. Pour into small bottles; seal. Store in freezer; liquid will not solidify. Serve icy-cold in shot glasses with dessert or espresso.
MAMMA AGATA'S LEMON CAKE
Adapted from Mamma Agata's Cookbook
2 sticks butter + 2 tbsp. for the pan
1-1/3 cups sugar
Grated zest of 2 large organic lemons
Pinch of sea salt
1-1/3 cup "00" or pastry flour
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup crushed toasted hazelnuts
Lemonade to moisten cake: Heat 1-1/3 cup water, juice of 3 large lemons, 1/2 cup sugar; let cool. Add 1/4 cup limoncello (optional).
Preheat oven to 350F. Make lemonade; set aside. Butter fluted pan; dust with flour. Sift flour, baking powder. Whip butter on high 2 minutes. Add sugar; beat until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beat after each. Add salt, grated zest. Alternately add and blend three times the dry mixture and milk. Mix on medium 5 minutes, until light and airy like a mousse. Do not over-beat. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 45 minutes. Do not open door-cake may fall! When done, cool in pan 2 hours. Invert cooled cake to a plate, then immediately back into the pan. If cake sticks, warm in oven a few minutes; invert and return to pan. This is to ensure cake doesn't stick during the crucial last step. Over the next half-hour, spoon 1/4 of lemonade mixture over cake in the pan three times every 10 minutes. Wait another 10 minutes. Invert cake onto plate. Pour remaining lemonade over top. Add nuts.