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I apologize in advance for what you’re about to see. It’s not pretty, and frankly, it probably doesn’t belong in a family-friendly forum like this. Hopefully your small children are in another room – if they’re not you might want to cover their eyes or otherwise distract them before scrolling past the photo below. I don’t want to be responsible for any nightmares.

Meyer Lemon Massacre

Pretty gruesome, I know. So what is it? Well, it’s a failed experiment that proves two things: a) that I should never bake after midnight, and b) that just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it will be good, particularly when something I’ve never actually tasted before is involved.

The unfamiliar element, as you probably guessed, was meyer lemons. This may come as a surprise to many of you, since these little mandarin-lemon hybrids have been old hat to North Americans for years. In Scotland, though, we just had regular lemons, and until I brought home a bag of meyers last week the closest I had come to tasting one was reading rapturous descriptions of their singular flavor. ‘Sweet’ was the one word everyone used, and it was precisely this that led me to assume these these orange-yellow beauties could stand in for other less-acidic citrus. I was so confident of this, in fact, that I gambled on a recipe in which citrus plays just about every role in the show: Claudia Roden’s sephardic orange and almond cake, which, if you don’t know the one, makes a deliciously moist confection out of the entire fruit – pith, peel and all. And if that weren’t risky enough, I decided to up the stakes and and bake some lightly sugared whole lemon slices into the bottom – a kind of lemon upside-down cake, if you will – which would soften and caramelize and glisten attractively when the cake was turned out. Or so I hoped.

Well, as you can deduce from the photo, this cake was a disaster in more ways than one. Yes, meyer lemons are slightly sweeter than regular ones, but not by much – even increasing the sugar slightly didn’t tame its mouth-puckering sourness. The bigger problem, though, was the peel, which is every bit as bitter as regular lemons, resulting in a cake so acrid I nearly gagged. And those delicate little lemon slices? They were bitter too, and about as tough as leather. Then, to add insult to injury, the cake fell apart when I turned it out of the pan too early, sending crumbs and leathery lemon slices everywhere (see above, baking after midnight). Honestly, the whole thing gave the word ‘failure’ new meaning.

The experience was so traumatic, in fact, I was tempted to give up on meyer lemons entirely, but since I still had a couple lying around I decided it would only be fair to give them a second chance. But in what? Well, after chucking the remains of my disaster into the trash I poked through the fridge and found I had exactly what I needed to repeat a dessert I made for a small get-together at my dad’s house back in December, a sweet-tart lemon pudding cake from Lori Longbotham that everyone had loved, despite the fact that I botched the recipe by accidentally doubling the butter (which really wasn’t a problem, it just made it impossible to eat more than a very small serving).

Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake

As good as this homely dessert was with regular lemons and twice the butter, with meyers (and the correct amount of dairy fat) it was sublime. It had no hint of acrid bitterness, just a delightful orange-lemon fragrance that was bright, sassy and delicately floral, with the kind of intriguing texture you might get if you crossed a souffle with a cheesecake – creamy, soft and light. We ate it curled under the blankets while watching a DVD the other night, and no offense to the movie, but this dessert stole the show – it was like a breath of warm, summery sunshine on a cold February night. It was not only good enough to erase the bitter taste in my mouth left by the previous disaster, it left me completely enamored of these lovely little fruits. I now understand perfectly why everyone gets so excited to see them come into season, since when used with care, they can transform good recipes into great ones. Just, please, if you ever hear the words ‘whole-meyer-lemon upside down cake’ exit my mouth again, lock me up in a lemon-less place until I come to my senses, okay?

Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake

I should warn you: this version of the classic lemon pudding cake doesn’t separate into well-defined layers like many others do; instead it kind of gradually transitions from firm to soft. That said, it’s definitely the most delicious one I’ve ever had. There’s only one problem: I can’t for the life of me figure out what to serve with it. I tried whipped cream, but it’s really creamy enough without it; I also tried berry sauce, but the delicate meyer lemon flavor was overwhelmed. Some kind of fresh fruit might work, perhaps, or maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Then again, it’s pretty darn perfect all by itself, particularly when you don’t have anyone but yourself to impress. Oh, and in case you don’t have access to meyer lemons, I’ve included proportions for regular lemons too.

Serves: 6

Source: Adapted from Luscious Lemon Desserts by Lori Longbotham

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick/60g) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup (200g) sugar

1 tablespoon finely grated meyer (or regular) lemon zest

3 large eggs, at room temperature, separated

1/3 cup (80ml) meyer lemon juice (or 1/4 cup/60ml regular lemon juice)

1/3 cup (45g) all-purpose flour

8 oz (250g) sour cream

1/4 teaspoon salt

Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Butter a 1-qt. (1-ltr) souffle dish. Have ready a large baking pan which will accommodate your souffle dish.

Beat the butter at medium speed until light. Add the sugar and zest and beat until combined. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add half the lemon juice, half the flour and half the sour cream and beat until smooth; repeat with remaining lemon juice, flour and sour cream.

Beat the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Increase speed to medium-high, add the salt, and beat to stiff peaks. Add one-quarter of the whites to the lemon mixture and gently fold in. Continue to fold in whites one-quarter at a time. Transfer it to the prepared souffle dish. Place the dish in the larger pan and carefully pour boiling water around it to a depth of 1 inch (2.5cm).

Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, until the top is golden brown, the center is just set, and the top springs back when lightly touched. Remove from the water bath and cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes.

Lightly dust with powdered sugar before serving (I didn’t bother) and serve warm, scooping up some of the pudding at the bottom of the dish along with the cake.

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