Category Archives: lemons

Lemon pizza!


My son, Zak, made this wonderful crust and all I had to do was add the toppings!

This lemon pizza is really a keeper — I wrote a post about it recently on my kitchen blog. And, if you have any pizza dough you like, it’s really simple.

Just take a few lemons, slice them thinly (cut the rounds in half or not, as you like) and soak in water for 15 minutes, then pat dry.

Layer slices of smoked mozzarella on the crust, then top with the lemon slices and tuck in whole leaves of basil. Drizzle everything generously with olive oil and bake in a very hot oven until it’s done to your liking. Zak uses a pizza stone (which he buys inexpensively at a ceramics supply) and it is great.

If you like lemons (I know you do!) you’ll love this. The balance of the crust, the smoky cheese and the tart snap of lemon is fantastic.



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A love of lemons, Medici style

Cosimo Medici commissioned Bartolomeo Bimbi to paint 116 varieties of citrus growing in the Medici gardens, with numbered labels naming each variety

The Medici family was wild about citrus. Not just for one or two generations but for hundreds of years.

This passion began in the early 1400s, when Cosimo de’ Medici grew citrus trees in giant pots, and continued with Francesco I de’ Medici (1541 – 1587), Grand Duke of Tuscany and one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees.

One of the Medici villas near Florence, Villa di Castello, was renowned for its extensive collection of citrus and its enormous limonaia or lemon house, filled with lemon trees planted in giant pots, each with the Medici insignia, that could be taken outside in spring and summer weather and carried inside for protection in the winter.

Grand Duke Cosimo 111 (1642 – 1725) cultivated 116 varieties of citrus in the Medici gardens and commissioned Bartolomeo Bimbi to paint a large botanical painting (one of four of Medici fruit) documenting their stunning diversity.

In the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called by the Latin word medici, an etymological twisting of the Greeks’ original name for the citron, Median apple, which nicely also seemed to refer to this family’s love of citrus.


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All about lemons at Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, this Sunday

Please join me (and bring your friends!) at Elliott Bay Books, 1521 Tenth Avenue, Seattle, on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. for an illustrated talk about the fascinating history of the lemon.

Lemon: A Global History tells the story of the remarkable adventure of the lemon, starting with its fragrant and mysterious ancestor, the citron, adored by the Greeks and Romans for its fine perfume and sacred to many of the world’s great religions. The lemon traveled with Arabs along ancient trade routes, came of age in Sicily and Italy, and sailed to the New World with Columbus.

It was an exotic luxury in seventeenth-century Europe and later went on to save the lives of thousands of sailors in the British Royal Navy after being recognizedas a cure for scurvy. The last century saw the lemon rise to commercial success, along with Sunkist and a California citrus empire, and the discovery of the Meyer lemon by the eccentric plant explorer Frank Meyer.

You’ll learn about these highlights and more, all richly illustrated, in Toby’s presentation, with plenty of  time for questions and signing afterwards.

Read a Q & A with Toby about the book here or see Toby’s lemon blog.

Bellingham friends: I will be signing books at Pacific Chef in Fairhaven on Saturday, Dec. 1, from 11 to 3!

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Happy Lemon

The Happy brand was the top quality label of the C.D. Hubbard Fruit Company.  Along with “Smile” and “Joy,” the “Happy” label was designed to convey the positive feeling one would have from eating C.D. Hubbard’s fruit products.

When I was searching for images of lemon crate labels to use as illustrations in my book, I came across this terrific site, The Citrus Label Gallery.  Jim Campos, who is active in the Citrus Label Society and editor of the society’s newsletter, The Citrus Peal, generously sent me some labels and helped me find high-quality scans of others to use in my book, in return for writing a couple of articles for The Citrus Peal.

Jim and his wife Valerie have been passionate collectors of citrus labels since they were married in 1974. They live in Carpinteria (where this label is from), just south of Santa Barbara, the town that Steve and I have adopted as our favorite beach town and winter retreat — and a couple years ago we met Jim and got to see their fabulous citrus label collection. (By the way, the Happy label shown here is worth about $475, so Jim sent me a scan of it, not the real thing!)

As for happy news, I got the first review of Lemon today, which was recommended as a staff pick in the most recent edition of ForeWord This Week (ForeWord is a publication that reviews small-press books). By the way, I am not a chef, just a home cook! Here it is:

If life hands you lemons, squeeze ’em on fish, salads, and vegetables; zest ’em in baked goods; or, make an irresistible meringue pie. Is any other fruit so versatile in the kitchen? Plainly, no! The latest installment in the splendid Edible series exploring the history of cuisine, Lemon: A Global History will make you pucker with pleasure.

Lemon: A Global History by Toby Sonneman
978-1-78023-034-4 / History / Reaktion Books / Hardcover / $18.00 / 141pp

Long before a lack of Vitamin C was understood as the cause of scurvy, lemons were known to Europeans as the “miracle cure” to the disease. Lemons have various other significant uses: known as “the perfume of love” to the Romans, added as a flavoring to food, and used as the scent of countless cleaning supplies. This unique book traces the history of lemons from their genetic roots in the citron fruit to present day agriculture. Sonneman draws on her experience as a fruit picker and chef to chronicle the lemon’s lively history, providing a few recipes as well.


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The sacred fruit

The Temoni esrog, a variety originally grown in Yemen

One of the lemon’s main ancestors is the citron or esrog (or etrog, depending on your pronunciation preference). Citron is one of the three naturally occurring wild species of citrus (the others are pomelo and mandarin). That means that even lemon is a hybrid — an ancient and naturally occurring hybrid which draws most of its genetic heritage from the citron.

In antiquity several religions chose the citron as a religious symbol, but none did so more intensely–even obsessively– than the Jews. The esrog is an essential symbol of the Jewish harvest festival, Sukkos, which in biblical times was considered the most important holiday of the year. Observant Jews all over the world demanded a perfect, unblemished fruit — grown according to very rigid ritual standards–for the seven-day holiday. My Russian Jewish grandparents brought a special silver container with them to America which was used to keep the esrog fresh during Sukkos. (For more on this subject, see my 2003 article in Reform Judaism Magazine).

Each baby esrog is protected in a nylon bag as it grows. And the whole orchard is protected under a net.

Some years ago, doing research for Lemon: A Global History, I went to the San Joaquin Valley in California and met John Kirkpatrick, who has been the only significant U.S. grower of esrog citrons for religious use (under rabbinical supervision) for more than 30 years. The growing and marketing of this fruit for the Orthodox Jewish community is fascinating and extremely demanding. (You’d think it would be even more difficult for someone who isn’t Jewish, but John, a Presbyterian, is extremely knowledgeable about Jewish agricultural law and religious stipulations.)

The esrog and lulav (a palm branch bound with myrtle and willow branches) are used in the central prayer of the Jewish harvest festival

Every year before Sukkos, John and his wife Shirley send me an esrog for the holiday.  It’s always such a special event for me to open the box and smell the heavenly fragrance of the fruit — and to hold it in my hand for the Sukkos prayer.

The box with the Temoni esrog arrives in the mail

This year it was especially thrilling to receive the box pictured above.  John wrote that it is a Temoni esrog, originally from Yemen.  The Yemenite refugees who came to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 and 1950 brought this type of esrog with them, he wrote.

I recently wrote an article for Tablet Magazine about what you could do with your esrog after the holiday — such as make a liqueur or a marmalade. Traditionally, once the holiday was over and the esrog was no longer sacred, women used it in a variety of ways, many of which purported to influence or ease pregnancy and birth.

Another interesting thing is that the white cushion-y fiber under the skin — the albedo or pith — of the citron is very thick and can be sweet rather than bitter as it often is with the lemon. John writes that the albedo of the Temoni variety is the nearest of all to being sweet — so I will be sure to try it!


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My friend Cathy returned from Italy recently and sent me this cloth that celebrates lemons and limoncello.

If you’ve ever visited Italy, especially the south, you may have been offered a little glass of ice-cold limoncello at the end of your meal. Or you may have brought home some little bottles of the stuff for a souvenir and tucked them away in your freezer. The liqueur captures the essence of lemon zest and is refreshing (as well as intoxicating!) on a warm day.

So, since folks have been asking me for a recipe for limoncello,  I’ll replicate the one on the cloth here:


  • A litre of water
  • A litre of alcohol
  • A kilo of sugar
  • 8 lemons
  1. Peel the lemons finely and put the peels down in alcohol. Close the infusion in a jar.
  2. Wait four days
  3. After that prepare a syrup with a litre of lukewarm water and a kilo of sugar
  4. Add the infusion and mix together. Wait 10 minutes, then filter and bottle.
  5. Serve it very cold.

Now, you can try converting from metric to U.S. units — here’s a converter for you– but if you’d rather not, check out this recipe that appeared in the L.A. Times in 2004 and sounds very good. It seems less sweet than the recipe above, which would be a good thing. It also takes longer, meaning the flavor of lemon zest is fully infused in the liqueur.

This recipe calls 12 lemons and 2 bottles of 750-ml 100-proof vodka (it would be easy to cut the recipe in half if you don’t want so much limoncello).  You zest the lemon peel and let it steep in half the vodka for at least 2 weeks, or until the peels have lost their color.  Then 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water are heated to make a sugar syrup, and the vodka– strained from the peels–is mixed with the syrup and the other half of vodka. You bottle and seal the liqueur and ” let the components marry for at least 1 week before using.”

Also, it’s worth reading the accompanying excellent story on limoncello written by L.A. Times writer (and esteemed food scholar), Charles Perry.

Note: With either of these recipes, I’d recommend using organic or unwaxed lemons and washing them well. Also, since you’re going to end up with a lot of peeled lemons, you could use the lemon juice for lemonade, simply adding sugar and water to your taste. Or pour the lemon juice into ice cube trays, freeze and store the cubes in a zip-lock bag in your freezer for later use.

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Your guide to lemons

Wondering how to choose and use lemons? Check out Toby’s handy lemon guide — just click here. For lemon recipes, click on the pages above, just below the “lemons, lemons, lemons” title.

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