What is this thing! … in the citrus section of our stores in the middle of winter?
It’s yellow, the color of lemons, but looks like a creepy hand with creepy long fingers. And what can a cook do with it?
It is a form of lemon called Buddha’s hand, developed over 2,000 years ago in northeastern India from natural variations of wild lemon species. Most of the wild citrons that still grow in India and China look more like lumpy lemons than a long-fingered hand. Yet they all share a secret.
Because the citron is a wild species that has developed over millions of years, it predates other citrus fruits we know today such as oranges, lemons, grapefruits and tangerines. But it is from this wildness that our familiar citrus fruits come, either by natural cross-pollination in nature or by human hybridization. In other words, the citron genes exploded into the panoply of delicious citrus fruits we enjoy today.
This does not mean that the lemon, whether it is the lumpy lemon-shaped fruit or the Buddha’s hand, does not have its own special charms and uses.
A citron has very little pulp, and what’s left is usually dry and seedy. It is discarded, along with the thick white layer of marrow that surrounds it. The useful part is the soft and very fragrant crust. In Asia, the Buddha’s hand is placed in temples to sweeten the air, and people use them at home for the same purpose. Asians also use the bark to flavor pickles, preserves and tea blends.
Here in Northern California, we don’t have as much experience with citrons, unless we’re Jewish. The citron is part of the Jewish rite of Sukkoth, a Jewish harvest festival that commemorates the temporary shelters that Jews used while wandering in the desert. Citrons will grow well in the North Bay, but they will need to be covered if the temperature drops to freezing or below.
Due to its concentrated flavor and heady scent, lemon is a superior substitute for lemon zest or lemon peel. Thinly slice the crust or zest the fingers to flavor dressings, seafood salads, baked or fried fish or for sweet pastries. The sweet zest lacks the bitterness of lemon and orange zest, so it’s great in fruitcakes or cocktails. Think mimosas, pisco sours, margaritas, lemon drops, daiquiris and vodka tonics.
Use a cheese grater or vegetable peeler to peel the fingers off the Buddha’s hand, releasing a strong, fresh, lemony scent. Place dishes of these peelings in bathrooms and bedrooms.
While Amalfi lemons are typically used to make limoncello in Italy, Buddha’s Hand lemons make even better limoncello right here at home. It’s easy.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel the skin from the fingers of four Buddha’s Hand lemons and put the peelings in a liter jar. Fill the pot with a good strong vodka (80 proof is good, 100 proof is more extractive and better) and put the lid on. Place the jar in a dark cabinet or shelf at room temperature for at least 10 days, although 30 days gives you a richer scent and flavor. Make a simple syrup of four cups of water and four cups of sugar, warmed gently so that the sugar dissolves. Strain the infused vodka into a large pitcher and add the simple syrup a cup at a time until the sweetness level is pleasant. Remember that less can be more; do not over-sweeten.
Bottle and label limoncello in bottles of your choice, though 8.5-ounce clear glass bottles with flip-top lids are traditional. Store in the refrigerator for a few months or in the freezer forever.
You’ll find that this candy quickly disappears if anyone with a sweet tooth is nearby. You may want to make two or more batches and freeze the extra to eat in the warmer months. This recipe makes about 36 pieces.
Candied Buddha’s Hand Citron
Makes about 3 cups
3 cups diced Buddha fingers, cut into ½ inch lengths
2 tablespoons sea salt plus a pinch
3 cups white sugar, divided
2 cups of filtered water
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add diced Buddha’s Hand and salt, return to boil and cook until lemon softens, about 30 minutes. Drain, discarding the drained water.
Combine diced Buddha’s Hand, 2 ½ cups sugar, 2 cups fresh filtered water and a pinch of salt in the same pot.
Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the syrup reaches a temperature of 230 degrees. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain the citron and reserve the excess liquid for other uses, such as making cocktails.
Spread the drained lemon cubes on a fine-mesh rack (pizza racks are good) set over a bowl for air circulation all around and let dry until sticky, at least 24 hours. Pour the remaining sugar into a shallow bowl. Toss lemon cubes in sugar until coated; transfer coated pieces to a large serving platter to dry out for at least 2-4 hours. Store in a box lined with waxed paper with a lid.