Why Hello There! And welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe, the site that will one day serve as my therapist’s between-session homework. I’m your neurotic psychotic banana-fana-fo-fotic, Jon O’Guin. Last week, I talked about how my mother and father have very different tastes in foods, and how my his recent hospitalization was jacking up my schedule, with going to see him and support him essentially becoming a full-time job for the last two weeks. Well, you’ll be happy to know (in the strictly general sense, since, you know, it’s unlikely you had an actual emotional investment in this) that he returned home last Friday, and things seem to be looking up. IN honor of his return and partial recovery, let’s talk about things he DOES like. Specifically, lemons.
A Power Sour
Lemons are something of a foundational food. One of the easiest ways I’ve found to determine the relative uniqueness of something is to look at the scientific name for it. Wolverines, for instance, are classified as gulo gulo, meaning “Glutton Glutton”, because nothing in the world kills like a wolverine.
Very few animals get to put "Bears" under the "Prey" column.
Lemon, to continue the illustration, is named citrus limon, or “Lemon fruit”. There’s no frills there, no desire to explain completely what it is. (The Bald Eagle’s latin name literally translates as “White-headed Sea-Eagle”) Science knew that once you said “Lemon” that everyone knew what you’re talking about. And that’s nothing to sneeze at. Oranges, a fruit distinct enough to have a color named after it, (and yes, that is the order: we called the color yellow-red before we had the plant.) don’t even get that simple of a name, instead being citrus sinesis which means “The Chinese Fruit”. Lemons are of particular importance, and a particular favorite flavor of my father.
It makes sense, looking at his personal history. My father was a child of Southern California, whose family visited Florida with some regularity. He was always going to have definite opinions on citrus fruits like how, I, born and raised in Western Washington, have definite opinions on seafood. Mine are not so positive as his, but they are definite. Anywho, Lemons and other citrus are important. Lemons are one of the most flavor-dense foods I know: an entire lemon averages around 18 calories. That’s less than you burn in 5 minutes of walking. But can you imagine, right now, eating a whole lemon? Plowing through it like an orange? The power of the juice is too strong, it’d break you like a Faberge egg.
With your delicate golden legs, and tiny blue-bell flower decorations.
Personally, I do like the sour flavor of lemons. Not as much as my dad, but to some extent. Long-time readers may recall that I list lemonade as one of my Kitchen Test Foods, meaning I judge a restaurant at least partly on how their lemonade is. This is at least partly because of safety: natural lemon juice is acidic enough to serve as a straight-up disinfectant. Yeah, you’re almost more likely to see “pure lemon Juice” in cleaning supplies than in food, where they tend to use “Lemon flavor”. Combine that with the work that lemons and limes (and cabbages, technically) have done ending scurvy. That’s actually where we get “limey” and “kraut” from: they were the preferred methods for treating scurvy by their respective nations.
What a Saucy Little Tart
So, recently, something happened. Sadly, that’s as specific as I can be, as I’ve completely forgotten what prompted our creation of today’s recipe. I THINK it was somehow connected to Valentine’s Day. Or maybe to…yeah, I don’t know. It may have just been as an attempt to make him feel better. See, for the last few months, my dad was on six-day tens, meaning he worked ten hours a day, six days a week. This led to a pattern unfolding: on Saturday, my mother and I would go grocery shopping, and my dad would end up with little say in the week’s meals, because he was at work. Now, since my dad doesn’t generally like grocery shopping, this wasn’t a particular change of pace, but it did leave him in a weakened position vis-à-vis meal planning: He was never there to cast a vote. We’re not monsters, of course. We know the things he likes and picked them up with regularity, he just wasn’t around to have the same spur of the moment decisions like my mom and I.
What prompted all this may take some explaining, as we all know I love to say. First, let’s talk about cozies.
“Cozies” or “Cozy Mysteries” are a rather broad subgenre of mystery novel, with a basic framework: cozy mysteries typically involve amateur detectives with intellectual or creative professions who discover murders in either their communities, or ones they have entered for innocent purposes, and who will solve the case through their quick wits and can-do spirit. The murders are typically fairly ‘tidy’ (suffocations, poisonings, falls) and the murderers not particularly threatening. Murder She Wrote is the prime example of a “cozy mystery”.
Many would use this time to make a joke about how she's clearly the murderer in the show. I however, would never make such a joke. I wouldn't dare, where she might hear me.
This has, sometime in the last decade or so, birthed a sub-subgenre of “cooking cozies”, where the main character’s profession is explicitly connected to food (a hotel manager, a food critic, a chef, etc) and the book contains recipes in addition to the main narrative. The recipes can be gathered at the end, or interspersed in the text, they can be from foods consumed in the narrative or merely thematically connected. (The “Murder by Chocolate” series, for instance, has a real easy time choosing which recipes to use.) In any case, Cooking cozies are a preferred form of entertainment for my mother, typically reading them before bed or as the coffee brews, and in a recent one, “Peach Pies and Alibis”, she found a recipe for Mini Lemon Tarts. Apparently, this specific cozy series focused on the investigations of a magical pie maker, a set of words that immediately pricked up the ears of me, a Pushing Daisies fan-boy.
It had Lee Pace AND Kristin Chenowith in it! How did this only last two seasons!?
This immediately caught our eye, and we decided to make them for dad, since we knew it’d be an easy sell. The recipe itself is remarkably simple, once you get the messy business out of the way: You gotta juice 3 whole lemons. That’s a lot of lemon juice to have on your hands. Not that you NEED to use your hands, just that, well, we’ll judge you if you don’t.
IN return you may judge the tragic conditions of my cuticles.
From there, it’s your basic simple cheesecake filling: you whip some cream cheese, whip in some sugar, whip in some eggs, and then whip in the lemon juice and some lemon zest. Oh yes you’ve got to whip it. Into shape. Get Straight, it’s- wait, no. This isn’t a Devo Karaoke bar. Damn those New Wave masterminds, with their siren song of whips. In any case, eventually you have a slightly off-white bowl of goo.
With a tiny tornado dancing in it!
Take your goo pile, and pour it into a collection of mini-tart crusts. If you don’t know how to make those, make normal pie crusts, and bring them to the Wonka-vision machine. That will shrink them up real small, and potentially maim children! Failing that, just, you know, buy mini-tart crusts. They’re in grocery stores. Maybe don’t maim children, dude.
Bake your tiny tarts for a quarter of an hour, and you’ve got diminutive desserts for up to 12 people! Our verdict: our tart crusts were a little old, so they came out a little soft. And while the lemon flavor was strong, it could have used something to balance it. I tossed some cinnamon on one of mine, and it was a marked improvement in my mind. But for about 30 minutes of work, and producing 12 tarts of tastiness, you could do a lot worse.
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NEXT TIME: JON CONTINUES TALKING ABOUT ALL THE BEER HE HAD TWO WEEKS AGO, AS IF HE WAS NEVER CUT OFF. THIS IS NORMAL FOR HIM.
Mini Lemon Tarts
5 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (requires 3 large lemons)
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 packages mini graham cracker tart crusts (total twelve tarts)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Using a stand mixer or food processor, blend cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar. Once the sugar is completely mixed into the cream cheese, add the eggs. Next, add the lemon juice and zest, and process until completely blended and smooth.
3. Spoon the mixture into the individual tarts, filling to the top. Bake the mini tarts approximately 15 minutes or until filling is set.
4. Let cool and top with, you know, whatever. I did cinnamon and praline pecans. You could do mint, berries, w/e.