Life Gave Me Lemons: Winter Citrus Cupcakes

Winter Citrus Cupcakes 1

A cupcake for winter - and a photo taken in early morning winter light.

I wish I lived in California for a lot of reasons. The food, the wine country, the weather, the Bay Area, the lefty West-Coasters – there’s many things to love about The Golden State.

But last week I discovered a new, previously unexamined reason – I could grow my own citrus. Nonna, whose parents live out in San Francisco, brought me back lemons from her father’s lemon trees that grow in their backyard. And no, I can’t imagine living in a place where lemons are actually able to grow in one’s backyard. That’s not something that happens in Eugene, Seattle or DC.

Since I’ve started baking more, I’ve begun to look at citrus fruits as treasure troves. You can use the fruit itself in savory salads or salsas, or in desserts, like trifles. You can juice them, and then use the juice to make curds, flavor batters, or make cocktails. You can candy the rinds and coat them in sugar for an elegant cupcake or cocktail decoration. And the oils in the skins are incredibly pungent – adding just a little to your cake or cookie batter will perfume the entire dough. There’s something incredibly satisfying about rubbing lemon zest into sugar and seeing the sugar turn a vibrant yellow color, and smell of fresh, tart lemons.

Needless to say, I was very excited about these lemons. And I happily turned them into citrus cupcakes this weekend, which, in my opinion, are one of the best remedies for the winter doldrums. I made them for a friend’s volunteer meeting and they seemed even more appropriate given the weekend’s snowfall. The cake has a mellow buttery flavor and fine crumb that’s brightened with lemon and orange zest.

This was my first time experimenting with meringue buttercream, where you make a meringue base from whipped egg whites and sugar before adding the butter. I loved the flavor – I added lemon curd and orange juice to the frosting, which gave the buttercream a lovely, tart, bright flavor. But the texture was still a little greasy for my taste – the mouth-feel was just too much like straight butter. I’m intrigued with this new frosting, don’t get me wrong. I think it has potential. But it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

These cupcakes may be a little labor intensive but it’s the winter. It’s the time for us to hole up in our kitchens, dreaming of California gardens filled with lemon trees.


Lemons. Pre-cupcake.

Winter Citrus Cupcakes
Adapted From Rose’s Heavenly Cakes and The Cake Bible, By Rose Levy Beranbaum, and Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes

A note on this cake: I added the citrus zest to the sugar before mixing it with the dry ingredients, which helps evenly distribute the oils in zest. This works perfectly fine if you’re creaming your butter and sugar before adding the rest of your dry ingredients. However, the Rose Levy Beranbaum method of cake mixing has you add the sugar with the other dry ingredients, and I found that the moisture from the oils caused the sugar to clump slightly. There were tiny dots of sugar all throughout the dough. I didn’t mind them, but next time I might just whisk the finely chopped citrus zest into the flour, before adding to the rest of the dry ingredients. I detailed my original process in the recipe below.

For the citrus cupcakes
Makes 2 dozen cupcakes

2 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup sour cream (divided)
2 and 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbs orange juice
1 and 1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp orange zest
2 tsp lemon zest
3 cups sifted cake flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
18 tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two muffin tins with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine eggs, 3 tbs of the sour cream, and the vanilla extract. In another small bowl, combine remaining sour cream and orange juice.

In a food processor, pulse together the sugar, orange zest, and lemon zest, until the sugar is orange colored (alternately, finely chop the zests and then rub into the sugar with your fingers). In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk together the sugar, cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until evenly combined. Add the butter and the sour cream/orange juice mixture and mix on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 1 and 1/2 minutes.

Add the egg/sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition (this will strengthen the cake’s structure). Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins, smoothing tops with a knife; each liner should be 3/4 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.

For the citrus Swiss meringue buttercream
Makes approximately 5 cups

5 large egg whites
1 cup + 2 tbs sugar
Pinch salt
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 cup lemon curd (recipe follows – take out of the refrigerator 1/2 hour before incorporating, to bring to room temperature)
1/2 cup orange juice (if freshly squeezed or isn’t pulp-free, strain to remove pulp), at room temperature
1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

In a heatproof bowl of a stand mixer set over a pan of simmering water (do not allow bowl to touch the water), combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt. Whisk by hand until sugar dissolves (you should not be able to feel grains of sugar when you rub the mixture between your fingertips) and the mixture is warm to the touch.

Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Starting on low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high, whisk the egg white mixture until stiff (but not dry) peaks form. Continue beating until mixture is fluffy and glossy and completely cool, about 10 minutes.

Decrease speed to low and begin to add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. Once all the butter has been added, add the lemon curd, 1/4 cup at at time, beating well after each addition. Add the orange juice, a tablespoon at a time, also beating well after each edition. Add vanilla extract.

For the lemon curd
Makes approximately 1 cup

4 large egg yolks
1/2 + 2 tbs sugar
3 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 and 1/2 lemons)
4 tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
Pinch salt
2 tps lemon zest

In a heavy, non reactive saucepan, beat yolks and sugar until well blended. Stir in all other ingredients. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until thickened (it will thickly coat the back of a spoon, but will still be pourable). Do not allow to boil, or it will curdle (if it begins to steam, remove from heat and stir vigorously until it cools down).  When thickened, strain into a clean bowl, pushing through strainer with the back of a spoon. Let cool and then chill in the refrigerator.

Assemble cupcakes
Pipe a swirl of citrus buttercream on top of each cupcake. Pipe a small dot of raspberry or blackberry jam on top of each cupcake, for decoration.



  1. Alice said

    I brought back some mandarins and cara caras from California this weekend. Sadly not enough to make cupcakes, but they’ve been tasty to snack on!

  2. Phil said

    The flavor of citrus zest continues to amaze me. Whenever I add it to sweet or savory dishes, I’m always surprised that it provides such a jolt of flavor even when I expect it. I have been trying to eat more locally and seasonally (especially at home), but I think citrus will keep me from ever being a true locavore.

  3. They look beautiful! I am getting a little verklempt!

  4. […] just made Winter Citrus Cupcakes last weekend and I loved them – the cake and the frosting are a lovely use of winter citrus. […]

  5. […] and orange – maybe a cake filled with chocolate orange ganache, maybe a re-do of the citrus cupcakes with a silk meringue buttercream made with orange curd. Maybe I’ll re-do the King Cake with a […]

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