Torta Della Nonna and Other Lemon Desserts
It's as at home in the Australian backyard as the Hill's Hoist, but unlike the mundane clothesline, the origin of the lemon is a mystery. Many modern European names for the lemon (German zitrone , French citron ) still reflect its past identity crisis.
Even its elevation to a full-fledged species (Citrus limon ) is relatively recent. Eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Linneas classified it as C. medica var limonum , deeming it a variety of the citron (C. Medica ).
The Meyer lemon is not a true lemon but a hybrid between the lemon and either an orange or mandarin. It is named after Frank N. Meyer who introduced it into the USA from China in 1908.
A short history of the lemon
It was the bitter, thick pith-ed citron, which is now primarily available as the candied peel "cedra " or "cedro ", that was well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The lemon may have turned up in Rome towards the end of the Empire as it was being cultivated in the Middle East by then.
The lemon invasion of European kitchens began when the Arabs spread its cultivation through the Mediterranean region between the 9th and 11th centuries. The returning Crusaders took it to the rest of Europe and, from the end of the 14th century, the lemon rapidly became an essential household ingredient valued both for its extensive culinary uses and its health attributes.
16th century physicians prescribed it as a tonic and it was at this time that its usefulness in preventing scurvy was also recognised, but it was to be another 200 years before the British Admiralty started issuing lemon juice, usually mixed into the daily rum ration, to its sailors for this purpose.
Uses of lemons in the kitchen
The lemon's culinary talents are truly extensive, ranging from preventing discolouration during food preparation to enhancing other flavours or making its own refreshing statement in every course from soup to desserts.
When preserved, whether in salt for savoury dishes as in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines, or as candied peel for use in desserts, it develops incredibly complex spice nuances.
Lemons: Perfect for Sweet Treats
Interestingly, it is in sweets department that this sour fruit is often used in greatest quantity. There are innumerable classic lemon sweet treats:
- Lemon Tart - this went straight to the top-of-the-pops on dessert menus in the 90s and has remained there since. Recipes for the "best" lemon tart abound - you are spoilt for choice within Hubpages alone!
My favourite lemon tart recipe is the one by Rene Verdon (who was chef the late Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House). Here's the recipe for the filling:
Combine 4 large eggs (lightly beaten), 275g sugar, 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp lemon juice, 2/3 cup orange juice and grated rind of 3 lemons in an enamelled saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until it is thick.
Remove from the heat and stir in ½ cup heavy cream and 3 tbsp softened unsalted butter.
Fill a pre-baked tart shell with the cooled custard and bake the tart in the upper third of a 160ºC oven for 25 minutes.
What's YOUR favourite lemon tart recipe?
- Lemon Meringue Pie, an old-fashioned and homely favourite. Add ground blanched almonds to the meringue for an interesting variation.
- Lemon Delicious Pudding, an appropriately named self-saucing pudding
- Crepes with lemon and sugar are the epitome of beauty in simplicity
- Cookies such as crisp Lemon Thins
- Muffins & cakes - my favourites are ones where yoghurt is included in the batter (an additional dimension of tanginess) along with chopped candied lemon peel, and finished off with hot lemon syrup poured over the muffins or cakes as soon as they come out of the oven.
- Lemon soufflés, sorbets and ice-creams
- Breakfast preserves for toast such as lemon curd (sadly, not much seen anymore) and lemon marmalade.
Lemon-based desserts are ideal finishes to most Asian meals.
Lemon in Slang
Despite its myriad talents, the lemon hasn't fared well in language, often used in slang to allude to something defective. In America it also means an informer; in Britain, a "gormless persons". In Australia, "going lemony at" is to become angry with someone and to be a "lemon" is to be sour and humourless.
But who could be cross for long with a slice of Torta della Nonna in front of them?
Recipe: TORTA DELLA NONNA
There are as many versions of Torta Della Nonna as there are grandmothers. My friend Barbara fell in love with one that was sold this little store in the Tuscan town of Castellina in Chianti. There was a choice between flaked almond or pine nut toppings. She ate the almond one every day whilst we were there. I re-created this especially for her back when we got back to Australia.
The original form is a dome-shaped confection with a firm lemony filling. My custard filling is a lot softer and as such, is made as a sort of 'pie' in a deep-sided flan tin.
700g shortcrust pastry, preferably homemade
1 egg white, lightly beaten
75 g flaked almonds
Icing sugar for dusting
750 ml milk
Zest of 3 lemons
185 g caster sugar
9 egg yolks
60 g plain flour, sifted
½ tsp Boyajian lemon oil
Prepare the pastry case & lid
- Divide pastry into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. Roll the larger portion into a 29 cm diameter circle, about 2 mm thick.
- Line a buttered flan tin (24 cm diameter, 3.5cm deep) with removable base with this pastry, leaving a 2 cm "collar" above the rim of the tin. Brush pastry case with egg white.
- Roll the smaller portion into a 26 diameter circle.
- Rest the pastry in the fridge for at least half an hour.
Make the filling
- Place milk, lemon zest and 125 g of the sugar in a saucepan over moderate heat.
- Meanwhile, beat egg yolks with the remaining 60 g sugar until very thick and pale. Blend the flour in thoroughly.
- When the milk mixture starts to simmer, strain into a large clean saucepan. Beat a cup of this milk into the yolk mixture until smooth. Then add this mixture to the rest of the milk in the saucepan.
- Cook the custard over moderately low heat, stirring continuously, until it is very thick.
- Stir in the lemon oil.
- Set the saucepan over a bowl of iced water, stirring continuously until it is cold. (This stops a film from forming on the surface.)
Assembling & Baking
- Take the pastry shell & disc out of the fridge. Stand at room temperature until just malleable.
- Pour the cooled custard into base so that it comes up to just below the height of the tin.
- Brush one side of the pastry disc with the beaten egg white. Carefully lay the disc, egg white brushed side down, on the top of the filling so that it sits directly against the custard, turning the edges up against the "collar" of the case.
- Press the two pastry "collars" together to seal, then carefully press the sealed edges against the sides of the tin to trim off the excess pastry.
- Brush top with egg white. Pierce several tiny vents in the top of the case with the tip of a small sharp knife. Scatter flaked almonds over.
- Place the flan tin on a flat baking sheet and bake in a preheated 180C oven for about 40 minutes or until the pastry is golden. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
- When completely cold, transfer the torta della nonna to a serving plate.
- Sift icing sugar over just before serving.