The first time I ever saw one of these, on a tree outside a hotel in New Zealand, I thought - what the heck is that, a mutated lemon?? Basically, yes... but it wasn't just that one tree. It turns out this is a very old type of citron called Buddha's Hand, native to China or northeastern India.
We picked these up at a citrus farm stand outside of Bakersfield on our way home from California last month, for super cheap. They are huge, compared to the ones I'd seen before - more than a pound each. They have almost no pulp or seeds, they're just all pith and rind. The taste and smell of the rind is just incredible, more fragrant and floral than regular lemon. They're just so wacky - like a squid crossed with a lemon - I had to have them!
After admiring them for a couple of weeks, I made them into citron vodka and candied citron. I know, I've been making a lot of candied citrus lately, but they're all different!
Buddha's Hand Vodka or Limoncello
1/2 lb citron
750 ml of decent vodka
2 cups sugar (if making limoncello)
2.5 cups water
Chop citron coarsely, or slice fingers in half lengthwise for a prettier presentation. Combine citron and vodka in a quart jar and leave to infuse in a dark place for 2 weeks. If you just want infused vodka, you're done! For limoncello, combine sugar and water, stirring to dissolve. Remove citron and add syrup until it's sweet enough for you. Age for 2 more weeks, until silky-smooth.
Candied Buddha's Hand
This is like the candied citron you'd use for fruitcake, but better! The corn syrup is important because it keeps the sugar from crystallizing, so the pieces come out soft and chewy.
2 lbs citron
3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Cut the citron into 1/2-inch cubes and put them in a large pot. (A 2-quart saucepan is not big enough, because when you boil them with the syrup it bubbles up a lot.) Add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Simmer 30 minutes or so, until the pith is translucent, to remove bitterness. Some say the pith of citrons is not bitter like orange pith, and maybe sometimes it's not, but... when I tasted it uncooked, it was not bitter; after I boiled it a bit, it was definitely bitter. When I boiled it longer, the bitterness went out of the pith and into the water.
Drain the citrons, then put them back in the pan with 2 cups water, sugar and corn syrup. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring frequently especially toward the end, until the temperature of the syrup reaches 230ºF. The syrup should be very thick; almost all the liquid must evaporate for it to reach this temperature. (It can take a really long time if you have the heat too low, and I think this is why mine have a slightly caramelly-burnt taste, so next time I'd let it bubble a lot so that it reduces quicker. I think for fruitcake or similar purposes, it wouldn't be a disaster if it wasn't quite up to 230ºF, the finished pieces would just be softer and stickier.) Don't worry if they still have some white color to them at this point. Turn off the heat and let the pieces sit in the syrup for another hour. Drain the citron pieces thoroughly in a colander, then spread on a cookie sheet to cool.