Fresh lemon — including the juice and the peel — is one of my all-time favorite ingredients, in part because it's just so versatile. It can be the star of the show (as in this recipe) or a brilliant supporting actor (as in so many of my everyday dishes). It's indispensable in fish dishes and pairs beautifully with all sorts of vegetables, raw and cooked. I also reach for it regularly to brighten up soups, stews and sautes.
The great thing about lemon peel, also known as the zest, is that it adds intense lemon flavor to a recipe without all the acid that is found in the juice. I use grated lemon zest in scrambled eggs and creamy pasta dishes and combine it with chopped herbs as a finishing touch for braised meats.
Whichever parts you use, it's important to start with the best possible lemons. The winning candidates will boast a bright yellow color and a thin skin. A thin skin signals more juice and less pith (the bitter-tasting white layer between the peel and the fruit itself). When grating the peel, you want to stop short of the pith. How do you know a given specimen has a thin skin? It will give a little when you squeeze it.
Once home with your lemons, scrub each one lightly under water to remove the edible wax with which it was covered to protect the fruit on its journey to the market. If your recipe calls for zest and juice, grate the zest before you juice the lemon. But don't grate the zest until just before you're ready to add it to the recipe. Zest quickly dries out and loses its oomph if it sits around for very long.
My favorite tool for grating zest is a wand-style grater. Once upon a time, the tool of choice was the fine-side of a four-sided grater. Unfortunately, this gadget often grabbed too much of the pith — not to mention the tips of your fingers — in the process. I do my grating over a piece of kitchen parchment, which allows me to pick up and measure the zest easily. The yield is roughly 1 tablespoon of zest per large lemon. If your recipe calls for zest but not juice, wrap the unused lemon in plastic wrap when you're done and do your best to use it up within a few days. A lemon stripped of its protective layer of zest dries out pretty quickly.
There are several ways to make sure you squeeze the maximum amount of juice from your lemon. First, soften up the fruit by rolling it on the counter and pressing down as you do. Second, heat it, either by microwaving it for 20 seconds or so or by stashing it in the oven at 350 F for 10 to 12 minutes. Finally, cut the lemon in half crosswise and juice it.
I like to juice using an old-fashioned and brightly-colored Mexican hand press. But there's also a more unorthodox, if equally effective, way to do it. Place the cut lemon half in between the two arms of a set of tongs, right at the top where the arms are joined. Then squeeze the bottom ends together. I learned this little trick from Ming Tsai, who picked it up from Jasper White, two of my favorite chefs. One large lemon will give up about 1/4 cup of juice.
These muffins are quite rich, better suited to dessert than breakfast (though they would indeed be a delightful morning splurge on a special occasion). Made with juice and zest, their deep lemon flavor is complemented by the raspberries. They are a very good reason to be glad for spring.
Lemon raspberry pound cake muffins
Start to finish: 45 minutes (15 minutes active)
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) cake flour (not self-rising)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup grated lemon zest
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice, divided
1 pint raspberries
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons powdered sugar
Heat the oven to 325 F. Line a cupcake tin with 8 paper cupcake liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat together the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in the vanilla. Add half the flour mixture and mix just until combined. Beat in the cream and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Add the remaining flour mixture, beating just until combined.
Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling them halfway. Press 4 raspberries gently into the center of the batter in each cup, then top with more batter, filling the cups just up to the tops of the liners. Bake the cupcakes on the oven's center shelf until golden on top and a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer the cakes to a wire rack and let cool completely.
While the cupcakes are baking, make the glaze. In a small bowl whisk together the powdered sugar and remaining lemon juice until smooth. When the cupcakes are cooled, drizzle the glaze over each cake.
Sara Moulton is the host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows.