Most people identify as either a chocolate dessert person or a fruit dessert person. I’m firmly in the second category, but more specifically, I’m a Lemon Dessert Person: give me a dessert lemony enough to pucker my lips and contort my face, or give me nothing at all.
Unfortunately, lemon desserts are, more often than not, disappointing. Where lemons are zinging with tartness, lemon meringue pie is cloyingly sweet; where the fruit is delicately floral and bitter, the cake is soapy and perfumed.
All I want from a lemon dessert is something that tastes powerfully and unmistakably like my favourite ingredient of all time, and over the years, I’ve developed some trusty hacks to do just that. If you’re sick of weak lemon sweets — or weak citrus sweets of any kind — here are some tricks to help you out.
Use more of the lemon
This may seem obvious, but for stronger lemon flavour, you need to use more lemon—just not in the way you might think. The flavour compounds that give lemons their distinctive flavour are distributed throughout each of its parts, including the ones you’d usually throw away. Making use of those parts is key to an extra-lemony result.
The first thing you need to do is face your fear of pith. In large quantities, lemon pith is unpleasantly bitter, but it contains aromatic compounds that the juice and zest don’t. Incorporating even a small amount adds complexity and tons of flavour.
For cake batter and frostings, keep zesting your lemons after you see white, or use a vegetable peeler to remove thicker strips of pithy zest. For lemon curd and anything that resembles it — lemon bars, pie or tart fillings, ice cream bases, puddings—you can get the whole lemon involved.
I like to slice whole lemons to expose the seeds, remove those, then purée everything else with your other ingredients. If you’re worried about bitterness, just remove the skin and pith from half of the lemons first.
Infuse your sugar
If you’re not quite ready to use the whole lemon, there’s an even easier way to boost lemon flavour: infusing the sugar with plenty of zest. When I make lemon desserts, the very first thing I do — even before I sort my mise en place or take the butter out to soften—is thoroughly mix the zest and sugar together and let them sit while I finish my prep.
This step gives the sugar a chance to absorb as much of the volatile oils from the zest as it can, which distributes them evenly and intensifies the flavour. Best of all, there’s no wrong way to do it.
A food processor or blender gets the job done quickly, but I’ve used the paddle attachment of my stand mixer when I didn’t feel like hauling out another appliance and my fingers when I felt even lazier. The important bit is giving the mixture time to rest; an hour or so if you can spare it, but even fifteen minutes makes a difference.
For cakes, always work in layers
Most of the flavour compounds in lemons are volatile, which makes a hot oven their natural enemy. This is especially bad news for lemon cakes: you can load them with zest and juice and still get a sad, bland sponge in the end. Increasing the those ingredients works, but only to a point; acid interrupts gluten development, so too much lemon juice produces a cake with a dense, gummy crumb. Not ideal.
To capture the brightness of a freshly-squeezed lemon, you need to layer fresh juice and zest on a cake after it’s been baked. My favourite way to do this is to poke holes in a cooled (or mostly cooled) cake with toothpicks, then pour a good amount of straight-up lemon juice over top.
Whatever fillings, glazes, or icings you have planned, forcing pure juice into the cake itself will help it stand up to them.
Consider a curd
Lemon curd is so much more than a delicious spread. With its thick, buttery, custard-like texture and intense flavour, it adds rich lemony-ness to everything from cake batter to buttercream; some lemon sponge cake recipes swap out the eggs entirely for a healthy serving of lemon curd. Making a separate custard is a little extravagant, but I think it’s worth it.
Even if you don’t whip it into the batter itself, lemon curd adds the perfect amount of bite to a layer cake—and besides, you can make it in the microwave.
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Lemon desserts need a perfect balance between sweet and tart, and sometimes the easiest way to walk that line is with a little chemical assistance. Powdered citric acid is a particularly useful weapon in the fight against Shitty Lemon Desserts.
Citric acid is what makes lemon juice sour, so using it in powder form cheats the lemony tartness up a bit without adding any extra liquid. It’s sometimes sold as “sour salt” in the spice section of supermarkets, but you can also order it in bulk online for a pretty reasonable price. If you’re after a boxed-cake vibe, there’s nothing wrong with a little lemon extract; I especially like it in cream cheese frosting.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of my favourite chemical of all time: salt. Acid and salt bring out the best in each other, so if your lemon curd tastes a little flat, there’s a good chance it’s missing not sugar or acid, but salt.
Add an extra pinch here or there, or just use salted butter; it’ll balance everything out.