When SoCal Gives You Lemons (#366)

If you have a square foot of land in Southern California, you probably have citrus tree. If you don’t, you might have one in a pot. If you don’t have one in a pot, all your friends with lemon trees are currently offering you free lemons (the oranges aren’t quite ripe yet).

Tis the season in SoCal.

Our lemon tree is loaded this year. Andy has made lemon pancakes and crepes with lemon curd multiple times in the last month.

Andy’s crepes with lemon curd

When Baby D had dental work done, Andy made him a lemon posset. (I thought possets died out in Victorian times, but apparently there’s a resurgence.)

When a friend asked me to bring a dessert for a New Year’s party, I figured I’d better use up some lemons. But what to make?

Then I remembered Lawyer Sis raving about her daughter’s addictive lemon cookies. Kickass Niece (who kicks ass in school, social justice, taekwondo, soccer, and baking) was apparently forbidden from making those cookies too often when the rest of the household stopped fitting into their clothes.

I hit Kickass Niece up for the recipe. She told me it was basically any sugar cookie recipe modified with extra sugar and two lemons. (My version of this recipe is at the end of this post.) I got to work.

The cookies came out super lemony (I suspect East Coast lemons are puny compared to ours).

Andy and Baby D tested them for me. They both shrugged.

Andy: “They’re good.”

Baby D: “They’re okay.”

I asked, “Where do they rank compared to my other cookies?”

Baby D said, “My cookies are the best, then chocolate chip, then maple rugelach, then chocolate cookies with white chips, then the cream cheese sugar cookies, then the candy cane and chocolate meringues, then these.”

Andy said, “The chocolate cookies are first, then D’s cookies, then chocolate chip, sugar cookies, then maple rugelach, then these.”

“So they’re last?!”

Baby D shook his head and said, “No, the oatmeal cookies with cranberries or raisins are last. Or the Berger cookies.”

Andy said, “No, the candy cane and chocolate meringues are last. DEAD LAST.” (Andy thinks chocolate and mint together are the devil.)

I sighed and wondered if I should have made different cookies—until I realized that Baby D was stealing the just “okay” lemon cookies off the cooling rack every chance he got. Cookie casualties reached the double digits before I started squirting him with the cat’s water bottle.

The lemon cookies didn’t look very impressive (even though I picked the prettiest ones for the party platter). But only a handful remained at the end of the evening. As we were leaving, I offered the remainder to the mom of one of Baby D’s classmates.

The mom said, “Actually, I think I will. Olivia’s got a cold and these might cheer her up.”

Her friend piped up with, “Oh, and I’ll take some for Janet.”

Olivia’s mom eyed her friend skeptically and said, “Janet?”

“You know, my imaginary friend who will get just as many cookies as your daughter.”

Olivia’s mom gasped in outrage and said, “I really am taking these for Olivia!”

“Suuuuuure,” said the friend.

We laughed and made our exit with an empty platter—which outraged Baby D, especially when he learned that we’d sent the last of the cookies home to Olivia.

He may even have sent Olivia an angry text about her eating the last of “his” cookies.

To which she responded: “What cookies?”

Olivia’s mom is so busted.

Lemony SoCal Sugar Cookies

Since folks on Instagram asked for the recipe:

Lemony SoCal Sugar Cookies (aka Kickass Niece’s Cookies)

  • 2½ cups (318 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt (I used kosher salt ground finer with mortar and pestle)
  • 2 sticks (226 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar, plus ½ cup (100 grams) for rolling
  • Zest and juice of 2 large lemons (maybe 3 if you are using puny East Coast lemons)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment on medium-high speed to beat the butter and 2 cups sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the lemon zest and juice and beat an additional minute. Add egg, egg yolk, and vanilla, and beat until combined. Gradually beat in the flour mixture.

Pour the remaining 1/2 cup sugar into a shallow pan or bowl. Using a small (1 tbsp) spring loaded ice-cream scoop, scoop out individual pieces of dough, drop them into the sugar, and roll them around until they are coated with sugar and roughly ball shaped. Place the dough balls on the prepared baking sheets, spacing at least 2 inches apart—these cookies will spread and flatten considerably as they bake.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the edges brown. (If you like softer, chewy cookies, cook less. Spouse prefers more caramelized and wanted them even browner on the edges.) Cool for cookies for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days, assuming you don’t have a ravenous child who eats them all off the rack.

For the Birds (#356)

Birds flock to my yard. I don’t put out feeders, but fountain brings in birds by the dozens in dry SoCal (also skunks, which is another, stinkier post). Andy’s insect-attracting compost pile attracts the black Phoebe fly catcher.

Small bird with bright orange chest
Allen’s Hummingbird, photographer Dean LaTray, Cornell Macaulay Library

The rufous hummingbirds and Allen’s hummingbirds dogfight over orange blossoms. Mocking birds have claimed the neighbor’s shrubbery and defend it against all comers—including hawks.

Bright yellowish orange bird with black wing
Fred Forssell, Macaulay Library

My personal favorite is the hooded oriole. He’s the most colorful bird, sporting bright orangish-yellow plummage. He arrives in late March, signaling that The Worst Month is almost over. The male hooded oriole fusses in the fountain before preening relentlessly for the less colorful female orioles. The females are much harder to spot, being the perfect shades of green and yellow for blending in with foliage. They also do far less preening and far more foraging for insects in trees and my rose bushes.

Recently, though, I caught the elusive female oriole on camera. She spent days ripping at the tissue box on the patio—either nest-building or auditioning for a Kleenex commercial. I’m dubious about the tensile strength of tissues, but she was determined. The orioles nest in very, very tall palm trees across the street. Fingers crossed the nest holds this year. (I’m all out of Kleenex, orioles. Don’t make me cry over your downed nest.)

Finch at a fountain, courtesy of a neighbor mom friend with a good camera.

Of all the birds, finches are the most numerous—and problematic. Every year there’s at least one pair determined to nest in my outdoor hanging baskets. When we first moved in, they successfully raised all their fledglings (and I cleaned a lot of poop of the patio). But once Baby D was a toddler, we went in and out and played in the yard so much the next finch parents abandoned their nest. Once it was clear the finches were never coming back, I took the nest and eggs to show Baby D’s preschool class. The kids were awed. I was sad.

After that, I started running off the finches as soon I spotted them in the baskets. Those finches were tenacious and sneaky. More than once, they managed to frame (with twigs) and drywall (with dog fur) while I was out on the morning walk.

That’s when I brought out the big guns: Boss Cat. The finches invariably fled to as I carried her outside. Raising Boss Cat over my head, (her Lion King moment!) I’d let her paw at the basket and rub her jaw against it. Then I’d yell, “Now do you see? This NOT a safe place!”

Sometimes, I’d throw in a song: “It’s the circle of life/ And she’ll eat you all/ Rip off your head/ Make sure your babies are all dead…”

I don’t know if it was the macabre lyrics or my singing voice, but Boss Cat and I successfully deterred basket nest building for years.

One of us was happy about this.

Eventually the wicker baskets fell apart. I replaced them with wrought iron baskets lined with coconut matting. The finches left them alone, allowing to freesia bloom in the spring, and marigolds to bloom in the fall. In the shadiest areas, the fuchsia geraniums bloomed year-round.

Until the scrub jays discovered them. Apparently coconut matting is even better than dog fur for avian drywalling. Those scrub jays tore out matting out by the handful, then flew off with it to their unknown nesting site. When I brought out Boss, they merely retreated to the telephone wire. And when I sang? They squawked back at me.

Blue and white bird on a post.
Marauding Scrub Jay, courtesy of mom friend

Like they were laughing.

As soon as I went in, those jays resumed ripping at the basket. I took my laptop outside and set up a chair under one of the baskets because I’m ornery like that.

The scrub jays went for the other basket. I moved my chair in between the baskets. The scrub jays disappeared. I was victorious.

Or so I thought.

Only later did I discover the holes in the coconut matting of front porch geranium.

Marauded matting!

I had to buy three new sheets of coconut matting before scrub jay nesting season was over.

This year, the scrub jays ripped out so much matting in just one morning that potting soil covered the patio and dog bed.

I took down the mauled baskets, telling myself they were rusting anyway. I transplanted the surviving flowers into my front garden.

And then I tossed the remnants of the coconut matting into the compost pile, yelling, “Fine! Have at it!”

The scrub jays were victorious.

Or so they thought.

I still have one hanging basket with pristine coconut matting on the front porch. The scrub jays, busy savaging the sacrificial matting in the compost, never touched the last basket.

Probably they’re saving it for next year.

Bright fuchsia geranium in a hanging basket of wrought iron.

Custard’s Last Stand (#230)

Our neighborhood holds a cooking contest over Labor Day weekend. The hostess picks a different ingredient or theme each year.

My husband Andy is an amazing cook. He won until the year of the potato. I snuck in a potato flake cake from a 50s recipe. My chocolate crushed the competition – including my husband. The following year, the hostess split the competition, creating two different categories: one for savory items, one for sweets.

Last year Andy didn’t enter a savory dish. He says it was because it was a hundred degrees and there was no way he was turning on the stove. Continue reading Custard’s Last Stand (#230)

Orange You Glad You Live in California (#209)

When I was a little girl, I always got an orange in my Christmas stocking. I would have preferred chocolate, but oranges were traditional. My parents got oranges in their Christmas stockings, and so did their parents, because back in the day, oranges were an amazing, exotic treat in northern locales.

Also, perhaps, because citrus crops are harvested in the winter.

Today, oranges are less special, thanks to big growers and modern transit. In fact, most of America’s seven million tons of oranges are now processed and turned into juice. When I shipped some belongings to college, a crate of oranges leaked all over my stuff — some of which wasn’t washable. One of my Florida classmates loved to come into my dorm room and sniff. “It reminds me of the orange processing plant back home,” she told me. Continue reading Orange You Glad You Live in California (#209)