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Turning to liquid sunshine in winter

Citrus Pudding Cake photographed Judith Dunbar-Hines' apartment Chicago Ill. Wednesday January 16 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Citrus Pudding Cake photographed at Judith Dunbar-Hines' apartment in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, January 16, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 29, 2013 9:56AM

It is deep mid-winter but this year it is hard to avoid the many references to climate change and its affect on Midwestern weather. A derth of snow and some unusual 50 degree days turn upside down the fables about how awful winter can be in Chicago.

Even with these changes, however, we still have cloudy days. Human nature and habit combine to make us long for more sunshine to boost our psychological and physical systems.

Meanwhile, folks who strive to be true locavores, eating only what is grown nearby, find ourselves hungry for things that just are not available at this time of year. We declare we cannot live without our coffee or tea, plenty of chocolate and the zippy flavor of citrus, none of which grow in our climate. Thankfully, those few exceptions have been acknowledged, even by the most strict, as acceptable additions to the local diet.

So, I head off to the store to find some liquid sunshine to light up winter meals. Seeing the pile of bright yellow lemons brings to mind my mother’s favorite recipe, passed down from her mother, along with the pan in which it was made. As a child, I was fascinated by the dessert, which looked like a cake but had the texture of a pudding. And I loved the sweet yet sharp flavor of unadorned lemon.

Meyer lemons, practically unknown to the Midwest only a decade ago, have become a seasonal treat thanks to markets bringing them in from the West Coast for our short-term enjoyment. During their season, I buy a bag and squeeze the ones I can’t use immediately, so that my freezer offers enough juice and zest to use in recipes throughout the year.

Thanks to a certain Mr. Meyer, who created a hybridized combination of orange and lemon trees, the distinctive flavor is slightly sweeter, less pungent than a regular lemon and shines when used as an ingredient in desserts, pan sauces and salad dressings.

The change in Grandma’s recipe when substituting Meyer lemons is subtle but delicious. Lately, though, I have enjoyed updating the recipe using tangerines. If you have a carton of charming little clementines sitting on the counter for snacking, try carefully grating the zest on a Microplane grater, and squeezing the juice to use in recipes. Be sure to use only the bright orange outer rind, and none of the white pith.

While we are on the subject of citrus and especially lemons, let me also share with you

My best cooking tip for 2013, which was sent to me late last year by a former student. She suggested a use for those cut lemons which usually go to waste after using only a portion for a recipe. Pull out any seeds and put the whole thing into a zip-top freezer bag and store in the freezer door. When you need just a bit of lemon in a recipe, simply pull out and grate — yes, the whole thing. Then return the unused portion to the freezer for another day.

I shower about 1 tablespoon of this frozen lemon on top of oiled vegetables such as asparagus and Brussels sprouts just before roasting, or use in any recipe where I want a bit of fresh lemon flavor.

So that’s my strategy for solving the search for midwinter sunshine. Easier and cheaper than airfare to Florida!

Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago. Contact her at

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