Saturday, 27 December 2014

Just how traditional is your Christmas cake?

It’s a Christmas tradition that isn’t sensible in New Zealand. Why do we choose to make and eat a rich dried-fruit cake in summer? I reckon one of the reasons so many of us have taken to having a mid winter alternative ‘christmas’, in June, is that we can enjoy rich, dark fruit cakes while sitting in front of a roaring fire… or heat pump!!
We all think Christmas Cake recipes are pretty traditional and much the same as our great grandmothers, but are they?
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In our house my husband Peter usually makes the Christmas cake – now that’s a tradition I am happy to encourage.  The Christmas cake is a big baking number where failure is expensive and long lived.  Anyone visiting the house over the holiday period will be offered a piece of this cake.  Kudos or embarrassment? The tension about the cake is only relieved on Christmas Eve when keeping to tradition we cut the first slice.
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If Peter could choose a favourite Christmas cake recipe then he would say that Charmaine Solomon’s Sri Lankan Christmas Cake from “The Complete Asian Cookbook” is very hard to beat.  I have rediscovered the book “The Twelve Cakes of Christmas” and have managed to convince him to make Joan Bishop’s Festive Fruit Cake (No. 12 in the book).  It’s a modern take on the Christmas cake that promises to be healthier and perhaps a lighter option for a summer Christmas.  As usual we have thrown caution to the wind and have decided to use part of another recipe,  Christmas or Wedding Cake (No 5 in the book) first published in 1951. This recipe starts with whole spices cinnamon stick, mace blades and nutmeg and are freshly ground and soaked in brandy “producing a delightful mellow taste.  Peter also suggested he use more brandy so we did.
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“The Twelve Cakes of Christmas” gives you more than 12 cake recipes. Helen Leach, Mary Browne and Raelene Inglis have researched 828 Christmas cake recipes from a variety of sources including 158 community fundraising cookbooks that span from 1900 to 2000. Why you ask! They wanted to find out if any of the major ingredients varied over the century and what social and economic factors could be affecting the changes. I will scatter their findings through the recipe in Christmas green starting with…
Christmas cakes have become progressively smaller through the century. Cakes were heavier over the troubled times of the Depression and two World Wars than later in the century. This decrease in size corresponds with the decrease in family sizes.

Festive Fruit Cake (with additions)

(Preheat the oven to 150C)
1 kg mixed dried fruit,
100 g crystallised ginger
100g dried apricots (preferably from Central Otago), chopped
90g dates, chopped
90g pitted prunes, chopped
zest of one orange
2 eggs, size 7
150g dark brown sugar (we used Panela or Muscovado sugar)
300g bread flour (strong or high grade flour)
1/2 tsp baking powder
150ml whisky, brandy or dry sherry (plus extra to feed the cooked cake)
200ml freshly squeezed orange juice – 3-4 oranges (we used tangelos)
1 Tbsp treacle, warmed
200g whole unskilled almond or Brazil nuts cut into halves or quarters plus extra almonds for decoration
1 1/2 tsp of freshly ground mace blades
1 1/2 tsp freshly ground cinnamon from a stick of cinnamon
1 freshly grated whole nutmeg
Grind the spices.
Add the spices to the brandy (or chosen alcohol) and mix through the dried fruit, ginger and apricots.  Stand overnight covered.
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There was a change in the main ingredient proportions. We are making our cakes a lot fruitier these days.
The most popular dried fruit in 20th century Christmas cakes were sultanas closely followed by currants and raisins.
The next day put the dates, pitted prunes, orange zest and orange juice into a pot and cook until softened.  Puree with a stick mixer or by just beating with a wooden spoon until it turns into puree.  This puree replaces butter in the recipe.
Good news is that there has been a fall in saturated fats and halving in sugar…but then the natural sugars in the increased dried fruit has nullified this decrease.
Ideally in a mixer beat the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the treacle and mix again.  Add the fruit puree to this mix.  Mix the soaked dried fruit and spices into this mix.
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Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and add the fruit mix along with the chopped almonds or brazil nuts.
There has been a steady decline in the amount of flour being used since the 1920’s and this is due to the increased dried fruit that needs less flour to stick together.
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Now it’s ready to go into the tin that has been duly prepared as outlined below.
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In 1900 91% of recipes contained citrus peel and this has steadily reduced to only 39% of recipes contained peel in 1999.
Place into an oven preheated to 150C and cook for up to  2 1/2 hours.  Opt for traditional bake rather than fan bake if you have that option.  If you only have fan bake then reduce the temperature to 140C and check the cake 20 minutes earlier than standard bake. Place just below half way in the oven to avoid the top getting too overcooked. At about 2 hours test the cake with a skewer to see if cooked in the centre. Other tests are that it suddenly smells cooked and that it starts to shrink from the sides of the tin.
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In the recipe it suggested placing the almonds to decorate before putting in the oven but another recipe said to do this one hour before the end. I decided to try for the latter so that the almonds wouldn’t get too overcooked.  This is unnecessary if you are planning to ice the cake.   In our case I wanted the almonds on top because Peter had omitted putting the nuts into the mix, so this definitely made me decide that we would use almonds instead of icing.
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The use of nuts in Christmas cakes have increased since 1985 because of increased availability from imports and New Zealand grown walnuts and hazelnuts coming onto the market.
Perhaps I should have added the almonds a little earlier because by the time I tried to place them on the top of the cake, the cake had developed a stiff surface and they wouldn’t stick!!  This crisis was averted after the cake was cooked by heating up about 3 tablespoons of Marmalade Jelly (any jam jelly will do) and painting this over and under all the loose fitting almonds.  It certainly gives the cake the attractive gloss.  You can also add fruit at this stage.
Preparing the tin…
Peter being a seasoned Christmas cake maker knows the importance of lots of layers of paper.  The Sri Lankan Christmas cake recipe has about 12 layers of paper but that is because the cake is larger and is in the oven for much longer.  The reason to line with extra paper is to protect the edges and bottom of the cake from drying out too much and becoming hard.
The recipe called for a 20cm square cake tin (I always remember our Christmas cakes being square rather than round) or a 22cm round tin.  I only had a 20cm round so I knew the cake may take slightly longer to cook through and could need a little more height so we kept the paper barrier higher than the tin just in case.
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The top photograph shows two layers of brown paper (Peter used a large tick paper bag). Cut circles slightly larger than the base of the tin. Place the 2 bases into the tin and run your fingers along the inside edge of the tin.  A small paper return should go up the side of the tin. Next cut a long strip of brown paper and and fold in half lengthwise and arrange around the tin. The small return will hold it in place. Make that outside ring about 5cm higher than the actual tin. This makes it easy to rest a foil hat on the cake should it be browning too much on the top in the later stages of cooking.
Most Christmas cakes are iced and Joan’s original recipe suggested almond icing followed by   royal icing. My favourite Christmas icing is butter brandy icing but I thought why go to all the trouble of creating a healthier cake and then spread all that sugar over it (delicious as the icing can be).
Pound cake type Christmas cakes make up 80% of 20th century Christmas cakes. (The pound cake has been around since the 18th century and generally has equal measures of butter, sugar, eggs and flour).
To my surprise I discovered Christmas cakes as we know them have only come into existence during the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid 1800’s. Other Christmas Day traditions were introduced at the same time including gift giving on Christmas Day, Christmas trees were introduced by Queen Victoria’s German husband Albert, people began to send Christmas cards and light candles.
Before Christmas cakes there were Twelfth cakes that were cut on the 12th day after Christmas (6th January).
The type of cake (a fruit cake) that became the Christmas cake we recognise today came out of bridal cakes that were fruit cakes with intricate icing.
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If you want a holiday from baking a Christmas cake or just prefer to buy then I suggest sourcing your cake from a cafe or deli where the cakes will taste like a homemade cake. I was particularly impressed with the painted Pohutukawa on this cake on sale at Foxtrot Parlour cafe in Ponsonby.
In countries all over the world red and green plants are used as symbols for Christmas. In Mexico the Poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima is a favourite as it is said to represent the Star of Bethlehem.  The Pohutukawa Metrosideros excelsa has been widely embraced as New Zealand’s Christmas tree as it is usually in full bloom at Christmas time.
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You are greeted when you arrive at Waiheke Island on the ferry by Pohutukawa trees along the shoreline. I couldn’t resist taking a photo with the blue summer sky against the intense red of our Christmas tree. (I have to admit this summer so far these days are rare.)
We shall have to see if the Festive Cake will become tradition in our household.  But from the research in “The Twelve Cakes of Christmas” recipes keep evolving. They counted the common recipes in New Zealand’s oldest and most used Edmonds Cookbook comparing the 1910 edition with the 1955 edition and found only 11 recipes were the same. And look at the way we have changed Joan’s recipe – we used the spices from another recipe, more brandy and heated jelly marmalade to stick the almonds on top. Let’s hope the changes work.  With so many recipes to choose from in “The Twelve Cakes of Christmas”  I think there is a high probability that we will be trying a different recipe next year.
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So with the different symbols of Christmas – almonds, artificial holly, red and green Christmas ribbon, a Christmas card from my niece Jessie in Australia and a big bowl of what are to me the ultimate summer Christmas flowers Sweet Peas – here’s wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas and holidays wherever you live.
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Sunday, 23 November 2014

It's bean time......

It has been quite a while since my last posting...and I will later let you know what I have been up to. But right now the first harvest of our broad beans has to be celebrated.
Broad beans are one of the most useful and rewarding vegetables to grow for the kitchen and for your garden.
As there weren't that many beans after podding my first harvest, I decided to make a broad bean couscous - that way everyone got to taste a bean or two. And somehow broad beans and couscous just seem perfect partners.
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Broad Beans this young if cooked quickly do not need to be skinned and if really fresh can be munched raw.
The best thing about this legume Vicia faba is that you can eat every part of the broad bean plant at different stages of growth  before the pods are mature.
Late winter the beans will start to gain height and these new leaf shoots appear.
Late winter the beans will start to gain height and these new leaf shoots appear.
The fresh soft green leaf shoots are delicious harvested for salads or as an addition to stir fry.  They have a mild peppery taste.
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Broad beans flower in early spring, and you can take some (not all or you won't have beans) for inclusion in salads.
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Here's the immature pod compared to a matured bean pod.
When the bean pods are the size of a pea pod you can use them whole in stir fry or sliced raw into a salad
If you prefer not to eat broad beans or do not have ready access to them then you can use any other vegetable in their place in this couscous dish.

Broad Bean Couscous

Don't you just hate it when Couscous clumps together?   I have learn't a couple of tricks that will improve your couscous dish.
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First step is to put 2 cups of couscous into a heavy pan and gently toast until it slightly changes colour but careful not to burn.
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Tip into a bowl and add 100ml of olive oil. The toasting adds flavour and the olive oil will ensure the grains remain separate.
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Add 2 1/2 cups of boiling water. At first it looks like soup...
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But like magic in a couple of minutes all the liquid is used up. I
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Fluff up with a fork. You now have the base for the salad.
Bring to the boil a pot of hot water to briefly cook the beans.  Make sure the water is boiling before adding the podded beans and cook for 30 seconds up to 1 minute.  I taste one after 30 seconds and if nearly cooked strain the beans immediately and run under cold water.
If you have large older beans you should skin the beans to avoid that bitter taste of the outer pods. But if the beans are young and the skins not grey then skinning is not necessary. There are bean varieties available that have a green rather than grey skin once cooked. This really assists with presentation issues for the broad bean.
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Add beans to the couscous.
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Lemon goes really well with beans so I scraped a preserved lemon quarter of its salty flesh and was left with just the preserved peel remaining.  Dice and add along with  half a fresh lemon's zest. If you haven't got the preserved lemon - no worries just use the lemon zest from one lemon instead of half.
Finely slice one garlic clove, then squash it into salt flakes. The garlic and salt goes almost liquid.
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Chop a handful of parsley and a couple of mint tips and add to the mix.
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Coriander is also a good addition to the mix and I reserve a little to sprinkle over the top of the finished couscous.
Now squeeze the juice from one lemon (or more if needed once you taste it), and mix with one tsp of honey. Mix through the couscous and add a good dollop of olive oil.  You should taste now and you may need to add more lemon juice and olive oil. The taste I look for is the balance of sharpness of lemon with the creamy oily taste of olive oil.
I like to add a touch of dried fruit that contrasts nicely with the beans and lemon. I used 2 tablespoons of currants that have been soaked in white balsamic vinegar (but you could use ordinary balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar). The reason you soak the currants in vinegar is to add bite to the sweetness and to plump them up a little.
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Add some chopped and toasted almonds to make your couscous complete.
You can add or change what I have suggested with what you have in your pantry cupboard. Roasted pumpkin cubes  that have been sprinkled with ground cumin could be an alternative to the beans.  And after the broad bean season you can add some sliced string beans or snow peas. Cooked chickpeas are also a tasty addition to couscous.
 
 
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The good thing about this dish is that you can prepare it ahead of time - in fact it will improve if left overnight. We had this with roast chicken, roasted new carrots and asparagus but it will work in combination with any meat, fish or vegetable dish.
Over the past few months my focus has not been on cooking but on gardening. I decided this year that I would increase my knowledge either in nutrition or growing food.  In the end I chose gardening as I felt the greatest nutrition comes from growing food in healthy soil and reducing the time from picking to the plate. I am attending an Agriculture NZ Organic Horticulture course once a week and already I realise just how much I don't know about growing.
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Garlic at foreground; beans background - Peter standing beside them shows their growth is not at all stunted.
 
Last week I learnt that you shouldn't plant beans and legumes with garlic and onions... and that was exactly what I did this year at our garden plot.  Our garlic is growing magnificently and next to them our beans seem to be doing well. Why don't legumes like the onion and garlic family? Apparently what makes garlic so good for us - killing bacteria - affects the bacteria that fixes nitrogen in the legumes.  The beans have started to get rust but are producing well.  I will keep an eye on them and next year keep the two apart - and they need a distance of over a metre.
Broad Beans are easy to grow and King's Seeds have a dwarf variety available that just grows to one metre if you are short on space.
But what if you have a real dislike of Broad Beans?  Then think about planting them anyway  before Anzac Day (April 25th) - let them grow up in winter and just as they begin to  flower dig them back into the soil.  You won't get to eat the beans but your soil will receive a good feed of organic matter and a dose of nitrogen ready for an early summer crop you just love to eat. It will take just a month in spring for the bean materials to break down. Before digging in - remember you can utilise the peppery green shoots in a stir fry or late winter salad. You will have your revenge on those beans your mother made you eat as a child and your soil will thank you!
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Getting to know your lemons and delicious lemon pudding

I use lemons on a daily basis, so, it's one ingredient that I want to have available. I know this sounds a little excessive, but when I travel I even take one or two lemons in my suitcase.  But, when I have lemons in abundance, my first thought is to make an old family favourite, the most Delicious Lemon Pudding.
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Lemon Delicious Pudding or Lemon Cheese Pudding recipe can be found in various editions of The Edmonds Cookbook.
At our local organic fruit and veggie shop they have three varieties of lemons for sale.  This has prompted me to investigate if there is any real difference in the varieties. I bought one of each;  Villa Franca, Ben Yen and Meyer.
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Ceres Fresh Market, in the Ponsonby Central Market, sources organic produce whenever they can. If you don't have access to free lemons and you are using the zest you need to make sure they are not waxed. I know these lemons would be wax free.
When I got home I discovered a box of large, juicy, Hawkes Bay Meyer lemons sent to me by my sister-in-law Monica. Time for a Delicious Lemon Pudding.
This pudding is simple to make and as the title suggests is deliciously 'lemony' with a light soufflĂ© top and a thick lemony sauce underneath.  This sauce is probably why in an edition of The Edmonds Cookbook the same recipe is called Lemon Cheese pudding.
In July when visiting my sister Kerry in Dunedin (with my travelling lemons) I used the recipe that she got from Mum.  I increased the lemon and decreased the sugar.

Delicious Lemon Pudding

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Kerry's special recipe book on the Lemon pudding page features a photo of Mum in her garden. Kerry's healthy homegrown eggs make the lemon pudding very yellow. This mix has yet to have the milk so its a little thick.

The pudding has two parts in the preparation - the thin lemon sauce and beaten egg whites to be folded through the mix to give the soufflé lightness.
1 tbsp of butter
1/2 cup of caster sugar (original recipe used standard sugar)
2 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
zest of one lemon
juice of 1-2 lemons (depending on the size)
1 cup of milk (I used almond and coconut milk)
2 eggs
Cream butter and sugar. I have found that caster sugar combines easier than standard white sugar as the butter to sugar ratio is quite low.
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Use either one or two lemons - I used about 1/3 cup of juice and zest from 1 lemon using a zester and then finely chopping. A zest grater would do the job in one action.
Add the flour, then the lemon zest and juice followed by the 1 cup of milk.  This will make the mix very watery.  Next separate the egg yolks from the egg whites.  Add the beaten egg yolks to the sauce.
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When folding in egg white I first add just one spoonful of egg white to the mix you are folding the egg white into. Then add the rest of the egg white. This little bit of added air upfront lightens the mix and makes the remaining egg white easier to combine.
Next, fold in the egg white gently. As the sauce is the consistency  is as thin as pouring cream rather than custard it can take a little time to fully combine.  Keep a folding action going rather than stirring to ensure not too much air is lost from the egg whites.
The pudding fits perfectly into a 600ml (just over 1 pint) capacity tin pie dish. The dish is 24 cm long.
The pudding fits perfectly into a 600ml (just over 1 pint) capacity tin pie dish. The dish is 24 cm long.
Pour into a greased dish and bake slowly inside a larger container that has water a couple of cm high.  This water bath keeps the cooking even and avoids the pudding drying out. Cook for up to 40 minutes at 160C until set. Avoid overcooking or it will dry out.
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This pudding I caught just in time. Ideally it should just be an overall golden colour on top as the one below.
This will serve four, so when I make it for a larger gathering I just double the mix and it works just as well.
This is a pudding I made for a larger family gathering using 4 eggs and 3-4 lemons.
This is a pudding I made for a larger family gathering using 4 eggs and 3-4 lemons.
Serve simply with a dollop of yoghurt or whipped cream.
There are many varieties of lemons with different qualities and uses.  Following are three of the popular varieties grown in New Zealand.
A bowl of Meyer lemons sent from Monica in Hawkes Bay
 Meyer lemon Citrus × meyeri  wins the title of New Zealand's most popular lemon and features in many kiwi backyards. The fruit is the sweetest and juiciest.  The Meyer strictly speaking is not a true lemon.  The tree originated from China and the lower acidity and  juiciness has occurred because of a natural crossbreeding between the lemon and a mandarin.  In 1908 agricultural explorer Frank Meyer introduced this lemon to the US.  In China this tree was primarily grown for decoration in pots.  Meyer's reward was to have the tree named after him. It's the variety most commonly grown in southern areas in micro-climate spots because it is the hardiest of all the lemon varieties.
The Meyer has a soft skin and is the largest of the lemons.  Sometimes they can almost look rounded and could be confused with a pale orange.  It is not the best lemon for zest and a real punchy lemon juice. That soft skin means you need to take great care not to bruise and damage the fruit and for this reason other varieties are often preferred by growers for export because their tougher skin gives them greater keeping qualities.
Villa Franca can be identified by its nobly appearance.
Villa Franca can be identified by its nobly appearance.
Villa Franca Citrus × limon 'Villafranca' is ideal for cooking and baking because it has an excellent flavour in the skin. It also produces fruit in the warmer months. Villa Franca is an Italian variety said to have originated from Sicily. Being a southerner  and not grown as lemon trees in too many backyards, I didn't realise that quite a few lemon trees have thorns.  Villa Franca apparently grows out of it's thorns as it ages.
Yen Ben is an Australian variety developed from the Lisbon lemon.
Yen Ben is an Australian variety developed from the Lisbon lemon in the 1930's by Walter Benham
Yen Ben Citrus × limon 'Yen Ben' has been a popular lemon to grow in New Zealand since the 1970's.  It's smooth and thin rind with very few seeds and high percentage of juice makes it easy to use and rewarding in the kitchen.  Yen Ben is a winter-producing lemon, though produces multiple crops throughout the year with the majority of fruit harvested in winter.  For successful growing and fruiting, plant in a large container or tub so it can enjoy maximum warmth and sunshine   Protect from cold strong winds, and hard winter frosts.
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Abundant lemon tree in my niece Francie's garden. Always cut lemons rather than pull off the tree. This will ensure a small part of the stalk remains that will allow the picked lemon to last longer.
If you are lucky enough to have a lemon tree in your garden, the best storage for your lemons is on the tree. Lemons don't ripen once they are picked and the fruit keeps much longer on the tree.
Lemons will stay fresh at room temperature for about a week. Store them in the fridge if you don't plan to use them within the week. They'll keep for about four weeks in this cooler environment.
Lemons are supposed to be easy to grow.  I haven't found the ideal spot in my Dunedin garden as yet but armed with the advice below I will give it another go in the future.
  • No matter which variety you choose, lemons do best in steady growing conditions
  • Maintaining moisture is as important as fertiliser - if your fruit is dry and pithy it is usually from too little water early in the growth cycle
  • Free drainage is equally important
  • Growing in large pots is a good option for gardens with poorly drained soil or in areas where you can't protect it from cold ground.
  • Lemons are gross feeders.  Apply well-rotted chicken manure once every two to three years. In the intervening years, use compost or animal manure (horse, cow or sheep).
  • Lemon tree roots are just below the surface of the soil so mulching is important to ensure the roots don't dry out.
An excellent Marmalade made from  Ben Yen lemons, Tangellos and one Kaffir Lime.
An excellent Marmalade made from  Yen Ben lemons, Tangelos and one Kaffir Lime.
In my investigation into lemons I noted that Yen Ben lemons were ideal for marmalade.  I tried them out making up to 750 gm (1.5 lbs) of pulp using 2 tangelos for colour and tart sweetness, and 1 kaffir lime.  I used the same method as I do for my grapefruit marmalade ( see Marmalade...starring grapefruit posted in October 2012). It made five pots of great marmalade.
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Enjoying a midwinter lemon pudding by the fire at my sister's place in Dunedin. Glad I packed those lemons.
Lemon Delicious pudding may be simple but it can make a big impression because of its light texture and real lemon flavour.  A few years ago I served it to my friend Andy, an excellent chef. He loved it so much that next time we met for dinner he requested the same 'put'.
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