Monday, May 22, 2006

lemon loaves

The above work is by Spanish artist Francisco de Zubaran titled Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) and it's one of my favorite paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Everytime I go there I first head straight to this painting; it's like greeting an old friend. I'm always drawn to art that features food but I think this painting sets itself apart from the usual themes of abundance with its air of gravity and spiritual austerity. In contrast to the artfully casual arrangements seen in most still-lifes, the three motifs -- the plate of lemons, basket of orange blossoms and fruit, a water-filled cup and a rose -- are laid across in a strictly horizontal line, as if they were votive offerings. Perhaps it's strange to feel uplifted by images of fruit and blossoms but to me, it's a devotional painting.

At the same time it's an incredibly sensual painting. Close-up the texture of the lemon and orange peel is irresistably inviting and will make you want to get out your zester. You can almost smell the fragant citrus oils rising and the delicate perfumes of the orange blossom and rose. After spending any amount of time in front of this painting, I get an urge go buy lemons.

How best to taste a lemon's fragrance? Lemon curd or lemonade jumps to mind, but I think the essence of a lemon lies in the zest, rather than in the juice. The following is a recipe for an aromatic pound cake, adapted from a recipe for the splendid vanilla bean loaves at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here each vanilla bean is replaced by the zest of lemons:

Lemon loaves, adapted from Hi-Rise's recipe for vanilla bean loaves (published in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte)

-3 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
-2 1/2 cups of lemon sugar (zest two lemons and stir into the sugar; let sit for a few days)
-zest of two lemons
-8 large eggs, at room temperature
-3 cups flour
-1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon of salt

(for the syrup)
-1 3/4 cups of sugar
-1 cup of water
-zest of two lemons

1. Generously butter two loaf pans (8 by 4 by 3 inches) and heat your oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Cream the butter with lemon sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the lemon zest, then the eggs. Beat to mix.
3. Stir in the sifted flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix just until smooth.
4. Divide the batter between the two pans and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the pans around and bake for 30 minutes more.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup: In a small pan dissolve the sugar in water over medium heat. Stir in the lemon zest, turn off the heat and let their fragrance disperse.
6. When the loaves are done cool for 10 minutes, then turn them out of their pans onto a parchment sheet. Brush them all over with the syrup. Repeat several times as they cool. This process contributes to the cake's wonderful graininess and pebbly texture.


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