Chow Town

Local cookbook author’s novels are steeped in flavor

Lemon goat cheese flan with shaved prosciutto, pea shoots, artichoke, pistachio and Sun Gold tomatoes served at a recent “The Memory of Lemon” brunch at Webster House.
Lemon goat cheese flan with shaved prosciutto, pea shoots, artichoke, pistachio and Sun Gold tomatoes served at a recent “The Memory of Lemon” brunch at Webster House.

Judith Fertig’s second novel — “The Memory of Lemon” (Berkley, $16) — plunges readers into the “high drama” of a wedding.

As pastry chef Claire “Neely” Davis meets the bride-to-be for a cake tasting, the tug-of-war between high-society mother and free-spirited daughter leaves her with a bitter taste in her mouth: “A fake lime flavor, like you tasted in cheap candies, settled in my mouth. Unlike the sharp, somewhat aromatic flavor of real lime zest and juice, the fake stuff tasted like chemicals. It was the flavor I recognized as manipulation.”

Fertig, an Overland Park-based cookbook author, has written numerous cookbooks on Midwestern food, barbecue and grilling but published her first novel, “The Cake Therapist,” last summer.

[Click here for a Q&A with the Fertig about her first novel.]

“Weddings are always a time of high drama and that’s when family stories come to light. Any skeletons in the closet kind of come to the fore,” Fertig recently told a room of women gathered at the Webster House for a lemon-themed brunch that included limoncello champagne cocktail, lemon and goat cheese flan, grilled lemon-tarragon chicken and a lemon panna cotta tart.

Fertig uses Neely’s flavors to flesh out the main character.

“I decided on a main character who was a pastry chef, and she was intuitive,” Fertig said. “For a lot of us when we hear a song on the radio or the smell of suntan lotion, we go back in time. But she can sense other people’s stories, and from flavor she can also tell what’s going on with herself.

“In her bakery, (Neely) decides to have two signature flavors each month. In the month of January, the two signature flavors are dark chocolate and coffee. … (They) are the flavors we need to propell us into action, and that’s what we need in January,” Fertig explained.

“So if she gets the taste of pomegranate, Neely knows she’s missing home. If she tastes the comfort of sweet cinnamon, it’s a flavor that holds your hand so you can cross the street into another chapter of your life. Flavor speaks to her and has a personality, and flavor speaks to me as well.”

To help her imbue her character with flavor, Fertig is interested in understanding the chemistry of flavor.

“In order to write about flavors, I also do research,” she said. “What are the compounds in certain flavors? That adds a little bit of science to how they make us feel. There are all these studies that have been done on chocolate that tell us why it makes it like a drug.”

Lemon happens to be one of Fertig’s favorite flavors.

“When you add citrus to a dish, it helps clarify thinking, just like when you add a little lemon to cloudy iced tea. It kind of makes things come into focus … then there is the limonene that is the essential oil in lemon zest and that assists with memory as we get older.”

One of the “key pies” in “The Memory of Lemon” is a Kentucky Lemon Pie that Fertig’s mother used to make when she was a child. The recipe came from Pleasant Hill, Ky., near where the fictional wedding is set.

“It’s a pie that you make by slicing whole lemons really thin so you have these thin slices with the rinds,” she said. “You remove the seeds but the thin slices sit in the sugar until they get really juicy, and the longer you let them sit the juicier they get. Then you mix them with some eggs and you bake it in a pie shell, and it’s a fabulous, really tart dessert.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at jsilva@kcstar.com or @kcstarfood and @chowtownkc.

Kentucky Lemon Pie

“This recipe, passed down through generations and families, holds a key to understanding in “The Memory of Lemon.” Made with thin sliced whole lemons, it’s puckery and delicious.” For more lemon recipes, go to Judith Fertig’s “Alfresco Food and Lifestyle” blog.

Makes 1 9-inch pie

2 large lemons

2 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs, well beaten

Pastry for a double-crust pie

Slice lemons paper thin, rind and all; discard seeds. Combine with the sugar in a bowl. Let stand 2 hours or longer, preferably blending occasionally.

Add beaten eggs to the lemon mixture; mix well. Turn into a 9-inch pie shell, arranging lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust. Cut several slits near the center. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the edge of the pie comes out clean. Cool before serving.

From “We Make You Kindly Welcome: Recipes from the Trustees House Daily Fare,” Pleasant Hill, Ky.

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