Going to the Davis Farmer’s Market is not a good way to foster fond feelings about living in New England in the winter. In New England, the farmer’s markets close in October, because there isn’t anything left in the ground to eat. We eke out a few holiday markets in November and December, at which it is possible to score some excellent turnips and Brussels sprouts and lots of jam and socks and maple syrup, maybe the odd remaining apple or pear.
Out here in California on Christmas Eve, the market was a preposterous cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. It was like visiting another planet. Planet Food. I stopped to admire the Meyer lemons at one booth, thinking about the space in my luggage that had been vacated by some holiday gifts and about the small amount of cash in my wallet at that moment. I put two lemons on the scale. “Let’s see, at two dollars a pound that would be…” began the nice man behind the table, peering at the digital display, but whatever he said after that was drowned out by my nearly-hysterical giggling.
“What?” he asked, rightfully but mistakenly offended by my outburst.
“Did you say two dollars A POUND?” I asked, and as he started to defend his prices from my scorn, I quickly told him that we pay approximately two to three dollars per lemon at home, except more often than not the Meyers available at that price look as though they have been swatted across the country by a relay system of tennis rackets. I bought a nice bagful from him, but when I returned with my prize I was reminded by my sister-in-law that lemons are essentially a weed in her neighborhood, every block with at least one house that sports in its yard a tree so laden with fruit that the owners have stopped paying attention. The lemons drop to the ground and rot, except when it is a tangerine tree, in which case it is tangerines dropping and rotting. “HEY!” said my son as we drove past another tree in this condition. “You should let us Americans handle that for you!” His sister pointed out that we were still in the U.S., so he amended it to “us SMARTER Americans, then.”
Across the street from where I sit, there is a tree full of hideous and fragrant bumpy lemons of a type unknown to me. A good stash of these are making their way into the suitcase, too. But I sacrificed one today, for the sake of these little treats I have for you.
A lemon square is nice. The top is tangy and sweet, the crust buttery and rich, and the whole shebang mere child’s play to produce. Made with a Meyer lemon, it is another thing entirely. Their exotic perfume makes the same kind of mouth music for me that lychees and quinces and elderflowers make. I like to use one Meyer and one regular lemon--not just because I must usually fork over some serious lettuce for that one Meyer, but also because they are less acidic and need the tang of a regular lemon to keep the whole sweet and tart balance.
At home I have about nine recipes for lemon squares, including four separate ones on the inside panel of a single box of Land O'Lakes butter, vintage 1982, which is funny as I guess they couldn't settle on just one either. Out here I had none of those, and had to triangulate off the Joy of Cooking and my jet-lagged memory. The small army of staff tasters on the R&P Travel Team is downstairs working these over. If we need to re-post, we will go that extra mile and make another pan.
½ cup (one stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into chunks
¼ c sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 c flour
½ c toasted almonds or pecans, very finely chopped or ground in a food processor with the flour.
A nice pinch of good coarse sea salt or fleur de sel, if you have it, which I didn't, but I know it would be good
¾ c granulated sugar
½ t baking powder
½ t vanilla extract
finely grated (a microplane is nice) zest of the meyer lemon, or about 2t lemon zest
1/3 c lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350 and get an 8 x 8 pan ready.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, nuts and confectioner’s sugar and the salt if you are using it, and then work in the butter until the mixture is coarse and crumbly. Gently pat it into the pan in a very even layer. Bake about 15 minutes, until set and the edges lightly browned, and remove to the counter but leave the oven on.
While that baking is going on, in the same bowl you used for the crust beat the eggs with the sugar and the baking powder and the lemon zest until thick. Stir in the vanilla. Once the crust is done, use the microplane to strain the lemon juice into this mixture and stir well. Pour it over the warm crust and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes longer, until the top is set and only barely golden.
Allow to cool completely before slicing into squares. Some people dust these with confectioner’s sugar, but I am not one of them.