Not long ago while wandering the picturesque streets of Sarlat-la-Caneda in the French Dordogne Valley, my eyes were drawn with tractor beam force to a small pastry shop. Down the center aisle, surrounded by hand made chocolates and piles of irresistible jewel-like candied fruits, were cake stands heaped with cookies of all kinds, shapes and sizes. Well, this certainly begged further investigation.
I was immediately drawn to one particular cookie piled high, right in the center. Round, golden and topped with a beautiful sunny candied lemon slice, it was a beacon among the others. Oh so pretty but I wasn’t expecting much. How would a whole slice of candied citrus work on a delicate cookie? Would it be too tough? Too sweet? Too bitter? My concerns were misplaced. The tart but tender lemon slice contrasted perfectly with the sandy, buttery cookie below. As I drove back to my little cottage, I instantly regretted not buying more.
A month later, now home and the memory still strong, I recreated that cookie for the fine folks over at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for their Go Bold With Butter blog. It took a few tries but I did it and I think my version is actually better than the original. For the base, a vanilla sable fit the bill perfectly. Rich and tender with butter, sugar and vanilla, it’s a classic in the French pastry repertoire for good reason and one I come back to again and again.
The lemons, on the other hand, took a bit of effort to decipher. I do so love a challenge. The key to maintaining a lovely, picturesque slice is to candy it slowly and gently. It’s not a quick process by any means but it is pretty easy, mostly hands off and well worth the effort for these beautiful and unique cookies.
I made them again last week, this time with thinly sliced kumquats, for my friend Meme’s annual holiday cookie exchange. This is hands-down the prettiest, most elegant cookie exchange I’ve ever been to and worlds apart from those of my childhood at the bowling lanes. What makes this one interesting is not the fabulous Lake Shore Drive location, the views of stormy Lake Michigan or the gorgeously laden table, though those certainly add to the allure.
Rather, it’s that half the attendees are rather well known Chicago pastry chefs and culinary professionals. These folks don’t mess around. As I’ve said before, you need to show well at this thing. These are my peers; I’m not about to show up with a mediocre, untested, unproven offering. I knew that this cookie, with a tiny jeweled kumquat perched atop, was the one.
I was right. My friend Malika, who brought cider caramel alfajores (uh, yum!), sent me a text the next morning “Your cookies were my favorite. Eating one now with a cup of tea.” Amidst all the stress and pressure I heap on myself at this time of year, her text made me smile and feel really good about these crazy things I do. Sometimes they work out just right. Appreciative friends who get you, help to0.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: Deck the halls with candied lemons. This one has made me so happy, I can barely stand it. First off, they’re delicious. Amazing really and rather gorgeous. That I figured this one out and did it better than the original is immensely satisfying. Every time I passed that loaded sheet pan cooling on the dining room table , I smiled and remembered that beautiful summer day, wandering the cobblestone streets between the yellow sandstone buildings and stumbling upon one interesting shop after another. Insert big fat sigh here. Make these. Sure they’re a pain in the ass and at some point you will probably be cursing my name but they’re such a triumph. People will be suitably impressed.
And while we’re at it … let me remind you about my Christmas Cookie Primer. Tips & tricks for this crazy baking season.
other good cookie recipes from this blog: Double Chocolate Alfajores, Sweet Corn Cookies with Salt & Pepper Buttercream, PB&J Bars, Smoky Bacon Ginger Cookies, Rosemary Shortbread, Peanut Butter Bars, Kolacky, Oatmeal Jam Bars, Cajun Ginger Cookies.
CANDIED LEMON COOKIES
Makes 3 dozen cookies, or more depending on how large you make the cookies
Keep in mind, the lemons takes some time to candy properly; up to 3 days on the slow track but you can speed it up to cover one busy day if you are diligent and pay attention. It’s an easy process but plan accordingly. Make sure you use the thinnest skinned lemons you can find – if Meyer lemons are available, snap them up. I’ve also made these with kumquats though be warned, it’s rather tedious to slice and seed a large pile.
For the candied lemon slices:
4 thin skinned lemons, well washed and dried (or ½ pound kumquats)
3 cups sugar, divided
2 ¼ cups water, divided + more as needed
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
For the cookie dough:
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature (2 sticks)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup powdered sugar, measured then sifted
1 large egg, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest of 1 large lemon (about 1 Tablespoon)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
coarse sanding sugar
- To prepare the lemons: With a sharp knife, slice the lemons into thin, even rounds about 1/8” thick. Try to slice evenly and take care to keep as much of the flesh intact as possible. Discard the ends, carefully remove and discard any seeds.
- Process #1: Bring 1 cup and ¾ cup of water and 1 cup sugar to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add the sliced lemons and bring back to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat as low as possible to maintain a gentle simmer and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat, cover and at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Gently drain the lemons and discard the liquid – it is rather bitter.
- Process #2-5: Bring the remaining 2 cups of sugar, 1 ½ cups of water and 2 Tablespoons corn syrup to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add the sliced lemons and bring back to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat as low as possible to maintain a gentle simmer and simmer for 15 minutes
- Repeat this process 2-3 more times until lemon rind is tender and translucent, adding ¼ cup – ¾ cup of water as needed to keep the syrup liquid. If the syrup becomes too thick there’s a chance it will begin to caramelize, which should be avoided. I added ¼ cup on the 3rd round and ¾ cup on the 5th round to keep it liquid.
- Remove the lemon slices from the syrup and spread out evenly on a wire rack set over a sheet pan.
- Let dry for at least 1 hour or overnight. (Note: If you care to save the leftover syrup, it makes a rather nice drink mixed with sparkling water and is delightful with vodka. In case you were wondering.)
- For the cookie dough: In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, mix the butter on low speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute (you don’t want it to get light and fluffy).
- Add the sugar, salt and the powdered sugar and mix until smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl as needed.
- Add the egg yolk (save the white for later), vanilla extract and lemon zest; mix for 1 minute.
- On low speed, mix in the flour just until blended, scraping the bowl once or twice (the dough will be very soft.)
- Divide the dough in two or 3 pieces and shape each piece into log slightly smaller in diameter than your lemon slices (the dough will spread slightly during baking).
- Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and roll on the counter to round out the edges.
- Refrigerate for at least 3 hours until firm (dough can be frozen, tightly wrapped, at this point for up to 2 months.)
- To bake: Position oven racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 325°F. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
- Whisk the remaining egg white to break up a bit.
- Unwrap one of the dough logs and brush lightly and evenly with the egg white.
- Sprinkle about ¼ cup coarse sanding sugar around the log and gently roll the dough to coat, patting sugar where necessary until evenly coated.
- Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into ½” thick rounds, turning the roll as your slice to keep the cookies round, and place on the prepared sheet pans, leaving about 1” between rounds.
- Bake: Bake the cookies for 9 minutes until they just begin to set but haven’t yet browned.
- Remove from the oven and top each cookie with a candied lemon slice.
- Return to the oven and continue to bake until the cookies are slightly firm to the touch and golden brown on the bottom, about 8-10 additional minutes.
- Let the cookies cool completely on the sheet pans.
- Pack in an airtight container with wax or parchment paper between the layers and store at room temperature for at least 4 days.