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Citron and Buddha's Hand

December 24, 2007
Marybeth Kampman

It is the time of year that we are all overwhelmed with sweets. One of the most famous yet most maligned players of the season is the fruitcake. I must admit that it is not my favorite. I remember as a child receiving leaden boxes in the mail from distant relatives containing what appeared to be a sticky brick. This was always a disappointment to a child hoping for a gingerbread house, which though equally inedible, was much more pleasing to the eye.

The most fascinating part about the fruit cake was its smell – spicy, foreign, somewhat musky and intriguing. Unfortunately it always smelled much better than it tasted.
Fruit cake is made of flour and sugar and fruit—not your fresh farmers market variety of fruit but preserved fruit. Because it is a winter time delicacy it was made with fruit that has been put up or preserved. Most recipes call for candied or crystallized fruit. Candied fruit is made by placing barely ripe fruit in increasingly stronger solutions of a heated sugar syrup. The syrup eventually replaces the water content of the fruit making it incredibly sweet and sticky. Many fruits succumb to such treatment including pineapple, cherries, oranges and the ever mysterious, strong tasting citron.
In doing my holiday shopping at my local farmers market I was happily musing at how my eating habits had changed over the years. Because I am live in Marin, I am blessed with the opportunity of frequenting a weekly farmers market that provides an ever changing assortment of local, seasonal food. I no longer have to depend on sweetly preserved fruits for the ingredients for my holiday baking.
While picking out a bag of succulent Satsuma oranges, a most unusual fruit caught my eye. lt looked like a large lemon than had mutated and grown tentacles. The sign below it stated that it was Buddha’s hand. Well I knew that this was Marin, but had the new age scene infiltrated the farmers market?
I asked the farmer what the unusual fruit was and she said citron. The disconnect lasted a few minutes. Other customers around me all were mumbling, “Hmm, I wonder what you do with citron, I’ve never seen it before, how strange,” and then it dawned on me—CITRON that nasty yellow stuff in fruit cake. How could anything so beautiful and exotic be related in any way to the yellow globs cemented in a fruit cake?
I asked the farmer for more information about citron and she said it was wonderful for baking. It could be grated and use as a substitute for lemon peel or zest in bake goods and fish dishes. She then went on to say that many people thought that it brought good luck and that placed in a room it would freshen and scent the air. It could be preserved in vodka making a beautiful presentation in a decorative bottle, and then enjoyed throughout the year. I bought a small “hand” and took it home to investigate further.
Citron has been around for a long time. Its place of origin is thought to be in northeast India. Seeds were found in Mesopotamian excavations dating back to 4000 BC. It is considered the first citrus fruit grown in Europe. Among the better known cultivars are the Corsican, Diamante, Etrog and fingered citron or Buddha’s Hand.
Buddha’s hand, Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus, is dark yellow in color, with a thick bumpy skin, covering finger like segments. Unlike an orange or lemon it does not have a fleshy fruit but rather a thick white dry pith. It is seedless or has loose seeds. It is the highly fragrant skin of the fruit that is used to flavor baked goods.
Citron trees are small thorny and irregularly shaped. They grow readily from cuttings taken from branches replete with foliage that are two to four years old. They must be quickly buried deeply in soil. The tree is sensitive to frost as well as intense heat and drought. It grows well in areas such as the coast of Southern California and inland valleys
As to the Buddha reference, the fruit may be given as an offering in Buddhist temples, symbolizing happiness as it resembles a hand in prayer. In other eastern cultures it is considered a source of prosperity and good luck. In India, Kuvera the god of wealth is represented holding a mongoose with jewels in one hand and a citron in the other.
The strong tasting citron that is most familiar to fruitcake aficionados has usually been candied commercially. It is possible to create a fresher tasting confection by candying citron in your kitchen. Boil one cup of sliced peel in water for 10 minutes, drain and repeat 3 times. Next immerse the peel in a simple syrup solution of ¼ cup sugar to ½ cup water. Add the peel and boil until all of the sugar is absorbed and the peel is transparent. Spread on racks to dry. Perhaps this year even I will be tempted to try my hand at baking a fruitcake.

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