Several years ago, my dad sent me this beautiful poem written by his longtime friend. I couldn’t wait to find the unusual fruit on which she’d written such heartfelt verses — to smell it, taste it, and transform it into a new treat. I feel fortunate that I’ve had several Buddha’s Hand Citrons grace my fruit bowl since then (not to mention some precious time with the poet, and more of her poetry).
Today, I’m lucky to have both a relative and a neighbor whose trees burst with the citron each winter. In fact, I first met my neighbor by mustering the courage to ask for one, offering both cash and cake in return. Buddha’s Hands also show up at my nearby markets mid-winter, but they are rather elusive, ripening quickly once picked. (Isn’t it so Buddhist of them to remind us of impermanence?)
The fruit’s twisty fingers offer a candy sweet, lemon-like perfume that fills the room with delight. I’ve found that the zest is its most useful part for baking (more thoughts on that below). This time, I decided to pair mine with bright, flavorful pistachios and plenty of vanilla. Its final destiny was a rustic, no-frills pound cake with both butter and cream cheese baked into the batter. Dense, sweet, hearty, and packed with nutty citrus flavors, the cake’s deeply toasty edges are a joy to pull off and devour, revealing an ultra-moist, toothsome crumb that’s speckled with beautiful green and yellow.
Buddha’s Hand Citron Pistachio Pound Cake [Serves 10]
• 1 cup (5 oz or 143 grams) all purpose flour
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• 3.5 oz (100 grams) shelled pistachios, ground to medium grain [2/3 cup ground, packed]
• ¾ cup (6 oz or 170 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
• 4 ounces (112 grams) cream cheese at room temperature
• 1.5 cup (14 oz or 396 grams) granulated sugar
• 3 eggs at room temperature
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• scraped seeds from 1 medium vanilla bean, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or powder (optional)
• 12 – 15 grams (2 rounded tablespoons, loosely packed) finely grated zest of Buddha’s Hand Citron*
Note: I’ve tried a few different pans for this cake; all take about the same oven time and come with their own pros and cons. For an 8″ round as shown, make sure pan is a minimum of 2″ deep to prevent overflow; grease thoroughly and line the bottom with parchment. For a bundt pan, follow these important tips to prevent sticking. While the bundt is arguably the prettiest form and offers the maximum amount of chewy-crisp edges, this recipe won’t completely fill most standard-sized bundt pans, so spread the batter evenly before baking — otherwise the bottom of your bundt won’t be level. For a 9 x 5″ loaf pan, be ready for a slightly sunken center (but the cake will still be delicious). If serving it straight from the loaf pan, grease and flour pan; if removing the whole loaf at once, grease and line with a parchment sling.
Preheat oven to 325 F with a rack positioned in center.
Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl. Whisk in the ground pistachios. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and beat well, then add one egg at a time, beating in each until completely incorporated. Mix in the vanilla extract, then the vanilla bean if using. Add the nut-flour mixture and mix until just evenly dispersed. Stir in the zest until evenly distributed.
Working quickly, prepare your cake pan according to the tips above. Spread batter evenly into pan.
Bake for about 55-65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center tests free of wet batter and edges of cake are deeply browned. Let cool completely before serving, first removing parchment if used. This cake tastes best at cool room temperature and lasts several days covered in a cool place. The baked cake can even be wrapped and frozen; defrost and enjoy up to two weeks later.
*Buddha’s Hand Citron is full of crevices that can hide dirt and critters. Before use, soak the entire fruit and shake it underneath the water. Rinse and dry well, then cut the citron into easy-to-hold pieces before zesting with a Microplane or similarly fine grater. One large citron should be plenty to yield the amount of zest needed for this recipe.
Maybe next time… If this recipe’s amount of sugar seems high to you, please don’t be tempted to reduce it. The cake is not at all cloying, and its texture and addictive crust depend on this amount; I experimented with various smaller volumes. Buddha’s Hand Citron offers an unmatched sweet-citrus flavor (my friend Brian says it happily reminds him of a more natural version of fragrant Fruity Pebbles cereal!) — but if you simply don’t have access to any, Meyer lemon or orange zest will work nicely in its place.
What about the rest of the fruit? It’s true: a cross section of the citron reveals that it’s pretty much solid pith. In one of my first versions of this recipe, I tried including a layer of pith medallions (sliced fingers, so to speak) — but the baked pith proved incredibly bitter. Here are some ideas that are more successful:
- My neighbors with the tree tell me they’ve infused vodka with slices of the citron and greatly enjoy the results in cocktails and over ice.
- An expert foodie acquaintance of mine recommends swapping it in for lemon in this spoon fruit recipe which relies on citrus pith.
- My lovely co-worker has kept thinly sliced citrus fruit immersed in honey in a jar in her fridge, dipping into it to make delicious tea as described in this video.
- When I was experimenting with toppings for this cake (which I ultimately found unnecessary and too sweet), I used the pith to make a citron-infused glaze that could work on cookies or another dessert. Place coarsely chopped citron pith in a saucepan and cover completely with powdered sugar, at least a cup or two. Add a dash of salt. Cover and chill at least overnight. Sugar will be wet; remove and discard pith, scraping excess sugar into pan. Over low-medium heat, cook the wet sugar, stirring, until it’s just begun to simmer. Remove from heat and quickly whisk in another cup of powdered sugar. Use immediately — it dries fast.