During the Clinton administration, along with young women from all over the world, I worked in an historical mansion on the banks of the Potomac River, just a hop and a skip from the political hurly burly of Capitol Hill. There I learned “servant leadership” by mangling sheets in the basement, polishing marble floors, turning rooms and serving meals to visiting dignitaries and heads of state who had come to retreat, find refuge or broker peace in the Library or the Breakfast Room.
In the hush of the vast historical mansion, laying out a little plate of treats for a visiting former KGB officer staying in the Lincoln Room, I had my first encounter with a Lemon Square. It was only the crust, but I had never before eaten such lemon perfection: butter, flour, sugar and slightly caramelized lemon: I closed my eyes and savoured the dense gooey bite: cool, sticky, sweet and quintessentially lemon!
I decided there and then that I would no longer waste my time with arbitrary, sitting-on-the-fence flavour. If it is going to be lemony, it must be very lemony – lemony and sweet!
There are a few who might happily eat a lemon just so, a lemon wedge squished to teeth in an eye-rolling burst of sour. Have you ever witnessed the puckered up face of a child’s first encounter with a wedge of lemon? But for most of us, lemon is a team player. When is it is not brazenly showing off with its soul mate, sugar (lemon pudding, sorbet, curd, meringue pie), it is often the jester, somersaulting and cavorting through plainer flavours bringing brightness and playfulness to a palette, teasing out more demure flavours - a squeeze of bright lemon on fresh fish. Sometimes it is the soprano carrying the tune for deeper chorus (cumin, Avgolemono, risotto, pasta and lamb).
One of my favourite lemon friendships is the trio of parsley, lemon and garlic. My mother, Ruth, would make a wondrous Osso Bucco. She would have me finely chop this threesome: lemon (clean), garlic (bright) and parsley (fresh) into a Gremolata topping. What a revelation and testament to the redemptive power of lemon! A formative flavour experience with the fresh lemon and parsley, coaxing out all the marvellous flavours of the meat!
Lemon’s nemesis is when it has no partner, however delicate, to balance it - no sweet oyster or asparagus, no salt or sugar to counter its tartness.
We know, of course, that in addition to a string of domestic uses, lemon prevents avocados, apples and artichokes from colouring.
And the propitious use of lemon zest is certainly one of my favourite devices: essential in crumbs and crumbles, brightening vegetables, soups and dressings, emboldening pulses, and calling out the flavours of the food that we love.
In the recipe for my Sesame Yoghurt Cardamom Cake, the warm syrup is poured over the cooled cake. Its lemony sweetness makes it one of my favourite cakes ever.
- 220g butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 8 tbsp honey
- zest of 2 lemons, grated
- 4 eggs, separated
- 220g flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- Pinch of salt
- 220g Greek yoghurt
- 2/3 cup sultanas
- 1 tbsp seeds from approximately 25 cardamom pods
- 3 tbsp sesame seeds
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 6 tbsp honey
- Rind of 1 lemon
- A few paper thin slices of lemon
Beat together the butter, sugar, honey and lemon zest until creamy.
Beat in the egg yolks one at a time.
Into a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and pinch of salt. Fold in the batter, alternating with the yoghurt. Fold in the sultanas and cardamom seeds. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold carefully into the mixture.
Pour into a greased tin, 22cm in diameter, lined with baking paper.
Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds.
Bake at 180ºC for 65 minutes. (If you find that the cake is browning too much, cover loosely with a sheet of baking paper with a little hole cut in the sheet.) Remove from the oven and leave to rest for at least 10 minutes.
To make the syrup, boil the syrup ingredients together for 5 minutes, stirring to combine. Pour the cooled syrup carefully over the hot cake or pour the warm syrup over the cake once it is completely cooled.
Delicious served with yoghurt or mascarpone cream and fresh figs.