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Perfect pairing: lemons and berries

By chance, last spring I stumbled upon the perfect culinary wedding. It was sweet, fragrant, visually stunning and talked about for weeks to come.

No. The couple weren't celebrated chefs. This marriage showcased the lively, versatile lemon and those sparkling little gems, blueberries.

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The story starts with an easy-to-make lemon-blueberry cake I found in a favorite cookbook. It called for a sour-cream-based batter, lemon glaze and 10 ingredients.

In no time, this cake -- and its glorious combination of citrus and berry -- became a hit. Wherever I carted it, recipe requests followed. One friend asked for a piece to take on a plane to New York, and it was in great demand for picnics.

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"Lemon and blueberry are like chocolate and vanilla together. They are made for each other," said Anna Pump who, with Gen LeRoy, wrote Country Weekend Entertaining: Seasonal Recipes From Loaves and Fishes and the Bridgehampton Inn (Doubleday & Co., 1999, $30), where I first spotted the cake recipe.

Pump serves this lemon-blueberry cake for brunch or dessert at the inn, where it draws raves from guests. "Blueberries are lovely, but not on their own unless you add some lemon. The acid complements the rather blandness of the blueberry."

So that's it? This is what makes the lemon-blueberry combination so outstanding, refreshing and addictive.

Thanks to Pump and her popular lemon-blueberry cake, I went on a springtime tear through grocery stores, farmers' markets and back into the kitchen, where I made any and everything calling for this flavorful combination.

Strangely enough, nobody ever said, "Enough. Get off the lemon-blueberry kick and onto something else."

Ordinary blueberry pancakes snapped to attention, a different L&B; muffin graced the table each week. Then came the wave of lemon-blueberry breads, pies, cakes, puddings, jam, sorbet, lemonade and a favorite, a spin-off of the classic Blue Lagoon mixed drink.

Because summer is close, my mind shot to this refreshing warm-weather drink that calls for vodka, blue curacao and lemonade. "Why not add a splash of blueberry something," I thought.

A trip to the liquor store yielded a bottle of blueberry schnapps. I had no idea this existed. The combination worked, again. The Blue Lagoon was served with a new twist, and another recipe was added to my growing lemon-blueberry collection.

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Endorsing this blissful culinary combination is author Joan Bestwick, who for lack of a formal introduction, knows her berries. Her cookbook Life's Little Berry Cookbook: 101 Berry Recipes (Avery Color Studios Inc., 2000, $11.95) makes good use of the lemon-blueberry flavor.

"The lemon brings out the flavor of the berry, and it cuts back on the taste of the sugar," said Bestwick, who grew up picking berries off the vine in Michigan. "Lemon is always good to stick in any berry jam."

Lemons have a tendency to remind us of spring. People who like to bake tend to get lemon-happy this time of year. The tart juice adds a twist to cakes and pies, and the zest -- the peel or outer skin -- adds a layer of depth to frostings, fillings and puddings.

Unlike lemons, which are available all year, blueberries don't start to appear in Maryland until mid- to late summer, depending on the season's growing conditions. That's OK. There are many lemon-blueberry recipes that allow frozen blueberries to be substituted.

Bestwick says its best to use frozen berries for jams, cobblers and sauces because frozen blueberries will be more watery than fresh ones.

In her cookbook, Pump shares another invaluable lesson, this one about baking muffins and cakes with blueberries. She advises spreading the blueberries in a single layer on a sheet pan and freezing them for one hour before using. This keeps the berries from sinking to the bottom of the batter. No more berry-bottom-heavy muffins and cakes.

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So from one cook to another, there is no excuse not to try this wonderful springtime union of flavors. After all, this is a marriage that works.

Lemon-Blueberry Cake

Makes 16 slices

2 1/4 cups fresh blueberries

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) softened butter

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

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grated zest and juice of 2 lemons

3 eggs

3 cups flour (divided use)

1 cup sour cream

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

GLAZE:

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2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Preheat the over to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch tube pan. Spread the blueberries in 1 layer on a sheet pan and freeze for 1 hour. This will keep the berries from sinking to the bottom of the cake.

In a mixing bowl, beat together the butter, sugar and lemon zest at high speed until light in color. Add the lemon juice, eggs and 1 cup of the flour. Mix at medium speed until the batter is smooth and well blended. Add the sour cream, another cup of flour and the baking soda. Mix at low speed until no traces of flour remain.

Combine the frozen blueberries with the remaining cup of flour. Fold this mixture into the batter, which should feel very thick.

Spoon the dough into the prepared tube pan. Bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes in the pan.

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To make the glaze, mix together the confectioners' sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Drizzle over the cake. Let the cake cool completely before removing it from its pan.

- From Anna Pump with Gen LeRoy, "A Country Weekend Entertaining: Seasonal Recipes From Loaves and Fishes and the Bridgehampton Inn" (Doubleday & Co., 1999, $30)

Lemon-Blueberry Pancakes

Makes nine 4-inch pancakes

1 egg

1 cup flour

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3/4 cup milk

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

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1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) blueberries

Beat egg until fluffy; beat in remaining ingredients, except blueberries, just until smooth. Stir in blueberries. Grease heated griddle.

For each pancake, pour about 3 tablespoons of batter from a large spoon or from a pitcher onto hot griddle. Cook pancakes until puffed and dry around edges. Turn and cook other side until golden-brown.

- southernfood.about.com


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