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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Christmas Citrus

December 9, 2013

A friend dropped by my house last week and gave me several Meyer lemons. They were perfect.

The Meyer lemon originated in China and many think it is a cross between a Mandarin orange and a lemon. I tend to agree. They are prolific in this part of the world and I know several people who have trees that are loaded down this time of year.

The Meyer lemon is slightly sweeter than a normal lemon and the skin is thinner. This is why one doesn’t see Meyer lemons in commercial grocery stores too often. Thinned-skin citrus doesn’t ship well. But if you have neighbors like mine, they only need to travel a few miles.

Meyer lemons are used in several dessert applications and many chefs preserve them. My favorite use is in iced tea. I typically like my iced tea with orange and mint. But I love tea mixed with lemonade. A squeeze of Meyer lemon into tea seems to be a happy compromise.

So is it strange that I have reached an age where a box of fresh citrus is considered an awesome Christmas gift and more welcome than a cake or a pie, or even better than a new album or article of clothing?

I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of depression-era Christmases when she and her brother received nothing but fresh fruit on Christmas morning. The story was told for a reason, the moral behind the oft-told fruit-for-Christmas story was: “You got a BB gun and a bike, it doesn’t matter what your friends received. Be happy and get over it. At least you didn’t get a basket of fruit.” True.

As a kid I felt sorry for my mother. How could she be happy with nothing but fruit in her stocking? Ultimately, I guess she wasn’t happy. That’s why she was still griping about it 40 years later. It served as a good example, I guess. I was always grateful for whatever I received. Though she occasionally slipped a few oranges and apples into our stockings as a reminder of the all-I-ever-got-was-Christmas-fruit story.

Today, I would be happy with a fresh box of fruit. I already have a bike and I no longer need a BB gun. Fruit seems pretty special to me today.

My favorite fruit used to be a peach. Then I ate the Clementine oranges of Italy and was an immediate convert. I love “Clementinos” as the Italians call them. This time of year they are plentiful in Italy. Most are grown in Sicily and shipped up to the mainland.

The first time I bit into a Clementino I was hooked. It was a burst of sweet, juicy citrus, nothing sour or tart, and more juice than one think a citrus fruit that size should hold.

I knew from that moment on that I was a Clementine guy. On the first American grocery-store visit after the trip I bought a bag of Clementine oranges. I can’t remember if they were from California or South America, but I remember being disappointed by the flavor and texture. It didn’t come close.

I am sure we grow Clementine oranges as well as the ones in Sicily. I just haven’t found them yet. I hesitate to even mention this because I don’t want to be one of those people who comes back from a faraway locale where they have spent a good bit of time, and nothing here measures up to the standards over there. Seriously, I never want to be “that” guy.

I knew a woman who lived in the United States but also had a home in France. She was a true Francophile. Nothing in America ever matched up to what the French were doing. It drove me crazy. In the words of Lewis Grizzard, “Delta is ready when you are.”

I love Italy. I love a lot that they do, how they live, and what they eat. But I am, first and foremost, an American. We have it great over here. I love Italy, but I love America even more.

My across-the-street neighbor in my youth, Mary Virginia McKenzie, is a master of orange sweet rolls. Possibly the most perfect gift of all— citrus and sweet roll, what’s not to love?

I have been eating those sweet rolls every Christmas morning for 52 years. She dropped by the house with several tins of orange sweet rolls last week. Perfect. When I finally wrestled them away from my children, I stuck a few tins in the freezer where they will remain until Christmas Eve.

So, when it comes down to it, I guess I’ve been getting citrus for Christmas my entire life. Orange sweet rolls and Meyer lemons, what else could a man need? God bless us everyone.

Mary Virginia’s Orange Sweet Rolls


1 batch                                                Icebox Roll Dough  (recipe below)

1 stick                                                Butter

1 1/4 cup                                    Granulated sugar

1 1/2 Tbl                                    Cinnamon

1 lb                                                Confectioner’s sugar


Grated rind of two navel oranges

Enough orange juice to make a glaze


Using melted butter, grease six aluminum-foil lined nine-inch cake pans.


Roll out Icebox Roll dough into a large rectangle (1 foot by 3 feet). Sprinkle with granulated sugar and cinnamon.


Roll up dough, jellyroll style, from the long side. Cut 3 /4-inch thick and place into prepared cake pans. Let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).


Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.


Make a glaze using confectioner’s sugar, orange rind and orange juice. Ice rolls while they are hot. These rolls freeze well in zip-loc bags, but if you are like me, they won’t last long enough to make it to the freezer. Yield: Not enough




Icebox Roll Dough


1 cup                        Boiling water

1 cup                        Shortening (or 2 sticks of butter)

1 cup                        Sugar

1 1/2 tsp            Salt

2                        Eggs (large)

2 Tbl                        Yeast (2 packages)

1 cup                        Warm water

Dash                        Sugar

6 cups                        Flour


Pour water over shortening, sugar and salt. Blend and let cool. Add eggs and beat well. Let yeast stand in water with a dash of sugar until bubbly.


Add yeast mixture to shortening mixture when it is absolutely cool. Then beat in the flour. Cover and refrigerate three to four hours.


Remove dough from refrigerator and knead with any extra flour you may need. Roll out, form or cut as needed. Let rolls rise until doubled and bake at 350 degrees until done and nicely browned.


Dough can be held in refrigerator before the kneading/proofing stage for five days (dough must be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap to keep air from reaching the dough). To bake pull out the desired amount, knead, proof and bake. Yield: a lot



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