Across the table, I could smell the lemons as my friend pulled them out of her bag. She put nine lemons on the table, three for each of us, and then picked one up, holding it to her nose. “They’re just Meyer lemons,” she explained, “from my mom’s tree. She’s coming again in a couple of weeks and I still have a big bag to get through. Enjoy!” My eyes grew as big as the lemons on the table and I picked one up, breathing in deeply. The scent was unmistakable. “They don’t smell as good when they’re cold,” she said, “and these have been in my garage.” They were cold, but they also smelled unmistakably warm, like sunshine, at the same time. It was snowing outside, with no end in sight, but these lemons were comforting and I felt I was back in LA, torn between the slightly damp salty air and the desert dryness, enjoying the cool mid-January weather with only a light jacket.
My boss, the assistant librarian at my branch, had brought in a bag of lemons from her tree. She didn’t explain that they were Meyer lemons at first; when I took them home and churned up some lemon ice cream with them, it was sweet and light, more refreshing than tart, and more earthy. I had never tasted anything like them; I wondered if they were hybrids with their darker peels and softer flavors. I can’t remember if she told me later or if I figured it out on my own, that they were Meyer lemons, but I became an instant fan and was jealous that I didn’t have my own lemon tree. When I moved to Utah, I thought really hard about buying a potted tree to keep inside because I had loved those lemons so much.
Sitting with three beautiful Meyer lemons in front of me, I was almost too distracted to continue with our meeting. I kept an eye on my lemons, wanting to bring them up to my nose again to transport me out of the frigid single-digit weather we were having and back to sunny LA.
When I got home, I knew they would have to wind up in something delicious. But I also knew I couldn’t wait too long. Fruit doesn’t keep indefinitely. I left them in my fruit bowl for a few days, perfuming the air with the fresh scent of citrus, but then thought twice about their home and moved them to the refrigerator. They were starting to color more already, and it was clear I should have left them in my garage rather than bringing them in to the warm kitchen.
I pored over my cookbooks, looking for just the right recipe. There was always my standby, a lemon poppy seed muffin recipe from Dorie Greenspan, but there was also a lemon cream tart I wanted to try. Or these Meyer lemon cranberry scones from Smitten Kitchen. Or what about preserved lemons?
In the end, I decided my standby was just right. Sous Chef could help, and I was sure to appreciate the lemons in a favorite muffin recipe. Plus, I didn’t think I’d get enough juice out of my 3 lemons for my first choice, the lemon cream tart. While Sous Chef finished her lunch, I began making the preparations to make muffins. I melted the butter, and zested the lemon, filling my nose with the aromatic scent of sunshine. By the time I was done, she was ready to help me measure out the sugar and flour and stir the batter together. I held up the bowl and urged her to smell it, but, being three, she was wholly uninterested. She was more concerned about when they were going to be done.
While they baked, the house filled with the delicious citrus smell and I eagerly waited. When they emerged, Sous Chef was “making her own muffins” with her play food and one of my half-sheet pans, sliding the pan carefully beneath an arm chair. I called to her to come taste, and we savored our little lemony muffins together. They were sweeter than those made with regular lemons generally are, reminding me of the subtlety of the Meyer lemons and confirming the delights of locally grown produce, even though this was hardly local to me. I popped muffin after muffin into my mouth, enjoying every bite, amazed at how food can transport you.
Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
adapted from Dorie Greenspan
I was always a bit hesitant when making muffins. Mine always spread ridiculously and never had that nice dome you hope for. When I found the high altitude adjustments page at King Arthur Flour, I had much better success. I’ve altered Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for altitude. I love her muffin recipes; they aren’t overly sweet and rise beautifully. And, they are simple enough for a toddler to make, though I don’t recommend you let your toddler touch the oven!
2/3 cup sugar
grated zest and juice of one lemon
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Preheat the oven to 415. Prepare muffin pans by lining with muffin liners or spraying with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, rub the sugar and zest together until the sugar is moistened and fragrant. Whisk in the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large measuring cup, mix the milk, eggs, vanilla, butter, and lemon juice. Pour the liquid into the flour/sugar mixture and blend gently. Do not overmix; a few lumps are perfect. Fold in the poppy seeds. Divide the batter among the muffin cups, filling each cup 3/4 full if full muffins, and to the top if mini.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops are slightly golden and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Mini muffins will be done in about 9-10 minutes. This recipe makes about 24 mini muffins AND 3 regular muffins, or one dozen regular muffins. These, in my opinion, are best fresh from the oven, while still warm.