Wednesday, February 28, 2024

When Winter Gives You Lemons.

According to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), citrus fruits grown in North America are in their prime during the winter season.  They are loaded with vitamins A, B-complex and C which promote healthy skin and eyes, support the immune system, and boost energy levels.  Their colors are brighter, for example the blood orange, and flavors are more intense and sweeter.

During the winter months, with the lack of sunshine bringing overall moods down, a bowl of colorful citrus fruits will elevate your mind, body and spirit.

Back on July 19, 2023, I gave you information on lemons, and a recipe for Lemon Fruit Scones.

Since this is about winter fruits, the lemon that is the tastiest is the Meyer lemon.  Originating in China, it was brought to the United States, in 1908, by Frank Meyer.  Who was Frank Meyer?  He was a plant explorer, or what we refer to today as botanists or botanical photographers and painters, and worked for the USDA.  He traveled to, on a three-year expedition, China, Korea, Japan, Manchuria, and Siberia with the goal of finding unusual plants that had health benefits.  Meyer found growing, in most Chinese households, a dwarf lemon tree whose fruit was used medicinally and culinarily.  Bringing samples back to the USA, and after much testing, the lemons were found to be high in yield, hardy in winter temperatures (as low as 22F), and sweeter than regular lemons. 

Oh, here’s a little tidbit about Frank Meyer that was not widely known at that time.  His name was actually Frans Meijer and had immigrated from the Netherlands in 1875.  Having difficulty finding work, he “Americanized” his name, and quickly became a greenhouse gardener for the USDA in Washington, DC.  His life story and adventures are documented in Isabel Shipley Cunningham’s book, Frank N. Meyer: Plant Hunter in Asia. 

Besides being sweeter which means the inside fruit can be eaten as is, the skin is a deeper yellow with a floral scent, so can be used in baking (when lemon peel is called for).  Which brings me to a copycat recipe I developed for Olive Garden’s Italian Lemon Cream Cake.  I know, I know, since my own culinary specialty is Italian cuisine, how did we end up at an Olive Garden?

It was one of those all day in Grand Junction days, we were getting the “hangries”, and Italian sounded good, so what the heck!

For dessert, we tried the Italian Lemon Cream Cake and it was something between a lemon mousse cake and a crumb cake, but put altogether as one.  For one of his birthdays, Roy asked if I could recreate the cake, and after much trial and error, success!  A little tip for a happy marriage, make sure to keep the spouse’s tummy very happy as well.  So, let me introduce you to my copy cat recipe for Italian Lemon Cream Cake, and this certainly will put a smile on any grumpy winter face.

By the way, Olive Garden discontinued this dessert, so now you will have to try my recipe to see what it is all about.  I believe you will enjoy it, especially if you like lemons.


Italian Lemon Cream Cake


The Cake

1 (18 1/4 oz.) package French Vanilla cake mix

1 1/4 cups water

1/3 cup oil

4 egg whites

Lemon Cream Filling

1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese, softened

2 cups powdered sugar

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. lemon extract

3/4 cup whipped cream (homemade or canned; do not use a tub brand like Cool Whip)

Crumb Topping

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup powdered sugar

5 Tbsp. cold butter

1 tsp. vanilla extract


powdered sugar


Make the Cake: Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 10” spring form pan with nonstick baking spray; line bottom of pan with baking parchment paper. In a large bowl, mix together cake mix, water, oil and egg whites until smooth. Pour batter into pan; bake for 40-45 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Let cake cool for 10 minutes before removing spring form. Let cake completely cool before cutting into two layers.

Make the Filling: In a large bowl, mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, lemon juice and lemon extract till smooth; fold in the whipped cream; set aside.

Make the Crumb Topping: In a medium bowl, cut the butter into the flour, powdered sugar and vanilla until little crumbs, about pea size, form. Refrigerate until ready to be put onto the cake.

Assemble the Cake: Flip top layer of cake onto flat dish; repeat with 2nd layer and remove spring form bottom and parchment paper. Flip 2nd layer back onto another dish, so cut part is facing up. Frost 2nd layer with half of the lemon cream filling. Flip the top layer onto the 2nd (cut sides together); frost top and sides of cake with remaining half of filling. Press the crumb topping onto sides of cake and evenly over top.

Refrigerate cake for 3 hours before serving. Sprinkle powdered sugar over cake for garnish.

Makes 10 servings. 

Mary Cokenour

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