Sometimes, while wandering around the internet looking for recipes, I will read the comments. A consistent, and deeply troubling, theme over the last decade is well represented by the following comments:
- -Do you think lemon zest would brighten this up?
- -Added lemon zest to these and they are even more yummers!
- -These needed a little something so I added the zest of 7 lemons, LOVE the recipe!
What the fuck is wrong with everyone?
I love lemons, and lemon zest certainly has its place (specifically in recipes that have the words “lemon” or “citrus” in their title). But it sure as shit doesn’t belong in half of the places it ends up. Especially when it comes to pastries. Why do we*, as Americans, feel the need to “brighten up” all of our baked goods? Why are we so uncreative that adding lemon zest is apparently the only thing we can think to do to make a recipe our own? Adding lemon zest is usually the wrong choice. I would estimate that 99.9% of the time it doesn’t improve the recipe, it just makes it taste like lemon zest.
The next time you reach for your microplane, I want you to ask these questions of yourself:
- Why am I doing this?
- What is this really about?
- Why not orange zest? Or grapefruit or lime? Or rose? Or vanilla? Or ______?
- If I want a recipe for something lemon-flavored, why I am baking this chocolate pound cake?
- What is missing from my life?
Lemon zest problems play out with their most dire consequences in the case of the blueberry muffin. A blueberry muffin is a glorious thing, rich vanilla cake with those complex and piney blueberries suspended throughout. It doesn’t get much better. But it gets a hell of a lot worse when you start zesting a lemon into that bowl. The blueberries barely get a word in edgewise. Lemon zest is a bully and has no place in a blueberry muffin.
If you don’t believe this is a real issue that has real world consequences, consider the following personal story that I have bravely decided to share:
A few years ago, I was shopping at our local farmers market on a beautiful spring day. The sun was out, the bluegrass band was playing, I was feeling powerful having just bought some ramps. I stopped by the table of a vendor new to the market, a local baker selling trays of gorgeous looking pastries. After chatting with the owner (who seemed like a perfectly normal person), I bought a cinnamon roll to enjoy as I finished shopping. Life was good. Until I took my first bite of that cinnamon roll and discovered, to my horror, that it was full of lemon zest—the frosting, the filling, probably even the dough! What kinds of monster fills a cinnamon roll with lemon zest? Cinnamon rolls are supposed to taste rich and low and brown and buttery—they don’t need to be sunnied up. This “baker” had decided to play god. He thought he could improve on the cinnamon roll. I threw that evil pastry in the garbage and had to avoid that part of the market for the remainder of the summer.
Listen, unlike that baker, I am sure you don’t mean any harm but you are killing me with all of this needless lemon zest. Please, please think twice before “improving” your next recipe.
*Obviously I mean you.
[In case you are looking for a solid recipe for blueberry muffins that does not need (much) improvement: I like this recipe, though I only use 3/4 cup of granulated sugar.]