This is a lovely cake for a Sunday coffee (we Germans love our Sonntagskaffee) or a grey day when there is a desperate need for a burst of sunshine.
For me Meyer lemons are synonymous with California and their perfume that fills the room when you rub the skin conjures up a lot of memories of our live there in the Santa Clara Valley. Before it became the Silicon Valley, the sheltered and sunny area between the San Francisco Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains used to be covered by fruit orchards and in-between all the Apples & Co there are still small producing gardens, little fruit farms like one tiny apricot orchard in Mountain View that I just happen to come across when I was house hunting. Not long after our arrival I had bought a Meyer lemon and a Robertson orange tree for our terrace, both of them supplying us with amazing amounts of fruit and regular visits of the most amazing hummingbirds (although I think they came primarily for the Hibiscus but serviced all things in its vicinity).
Meyer lemons, a cross between a true lemon & a mandarin (or orange), were brought from China to America by Frank Nicholas Meyer at the turn of the 20th century and – after being rediscovered by the Californian cuisine and chefs – made quite a splash nearly a century later. Sadly they are not widely available in Germany – to be honest I have never seen one at even the most specialized grocers in the paradise that is the Frankfurt Kleinmarkthalle. Maybe soon, we’ll see some more of them but since our return we have come up with quite a good way to simulate the taste of a Meyer lemon to heal the longing by adding a bit of mandarin juice to lemon juice to tone down the sharp sourness and adding the necessary mandarin note. Luckily last year I found Meyer lemon tree in a plant nursery and this year, we are inundated by quite a crop – hurray!
As I said, Sunday coffee is a big thing in Germany, so is the British teatime and combining both in our house creates a fantastic hybrid when we have people over and serve cake, a tarte or a proper Torte & Kuchen bonanza and a spread of savoury sandwiches (egg & cress, cucumber are my favourites, making me feel sometimes even more British than my husband). Last year we added the whole lemon bars from the Deb Perelman’s cookbook to our coffee table and loved them immediately. They are like the love child of a Tarte au citron and the fabulous orange cake that used a whole boiled orange (now I mention it, I really should make that one again soon) and are just quintessentially lemony. This years Meyer lemon crop needs to be dealt with and therefore today’s version are Meyer lemon squares. If you use an ordinary (organic) lemon you might want to increase the sugar by 1/3 cup (65g) as Deb’s recipe suggests to balance the sourness, I did not really find it necessary. Add mandarin juice and close your eyes to bathe in the smell & taste of Bay Area sunshine.
A word about the American cup measurements: of course it is better to weigh things to get an accurate result every time. But I really would not worry about it too much, there are many more factors that determine the dough and different flours on different days with different weather & humidity need different amounts of liquid to form a dough. For example here: one cup of plain flour could amount to something from 125g to 170g or even more depending on how you scoop. So, I happily use cup measurements for some cakes and am giving you today’s weight-exchange rate. It is a bit as the petrol price – it changes nearly every minute.
Meyer lemon squares
makes 9-16 pieces, adapted from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook who uses one regular lemon, more sugar and no vanilla extract
150g (1 cup) flour
65g (1/3 cup) sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ tablespoon vanilla extract (please use extract and no artificial vanilla aroma)
114g (1 stick) cold butter, cut into cubes
2 medium organic Meyer lemons or 1 organic lemon + juice of 1 mandarin
200g (1 cup) sugar (use another 65g or 1/3 cup of sugar if you prefer a sweeter cake)
114g (1stick) butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch (Maisstärke, Mondamin)
¼ teaspoon salt
powdered sugar (confectioners sugar, Puderzucker)
Preheat the oven to 175°C (350° F) or 150°C for a fan oven and line a 20cm x 20cm (8 x 8 inches) baking tin with baking parchment. Leave a little overhang on each side that will act as handles when you lift the cake out of the tin.
Blitz the flour, sugar, salt, vanilla essence and butter for the shortcrust pastry (german: Mürbeteig) in a food processor to a sandy crumble, decant it into the tin and press down lightly with your fingers for an even and firm base. Prick with a fork to prevent a rise and bake until lightly browned (for about 20 minutes).
While the pastry is baking make the lemon layer: Cut your Meyer lemons or lemon into thin half moon slices and remove any pips. If your regular lemon has quite thick white pith, then follow Deb’s advice and remove it completely from one half of your lemon to avoid exceeding bitterness. Purée the lemon slices with the sugar in the food processor, incorporate the butter, then add the eggs, cornstarch and salt and pulse to combine. Spread the lemon cream onto your base, return to the oven and bake for another 30-40 minutes until the lemon top is set and just lightly tanned. Leave in the tin to cool completely, then lift the cake out using your parchment handles. Cut into 9 medium or 16 smaller squares and dust with a little powdered sugar. Tuck in.