It’s now been eight years since my dear friend Allison Lonsdale introduced me to the awe and wonder that is the Buddha’s Hand citron. Or, as she likes to call it, Cthulhufruit. In the intervening four-fifths of a decade, I exaggerate not a whit when I say that Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis led me on quite the adventure. Trust me: orchids aren’t addictive. Citrus is addictive.
By way of example, finding a suitable source of Cthulhufruit for culinary experiments is much easier today than it was in 2004. Back then, the only hope for finding it in Dallas was during the two or three days of the year when the local Whole Foods had one, and that’s after getting past the managers apparently fired from Borders for arrogance and surliness. Now, the local Central Market tends to carry it in season, just as much to terrify the customers as for actual use. I still have a suitable supply of candied Cthulhufruit from a big cookup a year ago, so now it was time to go for another grand experiment. Now it’s time to make Cthulhufruit flavoring extract.
As mentioned in the past, I share one thing with my cousin Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and that is a complete inability to drink. I can appreciate the end-products of brewing and distillation, and I heartily encourage friends not to hold off on my account. Hence, the only reason why I don’t just say “Kids, today we’re making Cthulhufruit vodka” is because this really is for cooking. Now, if friends want to slam back a few shots, they’re welcome to it, but I understand from my best friend that this is a drink best sipped. When he tells me this, I just have to smile and nod.
Anyway, to start, you only need a few items before going to work:
3 ripe Buddha’s Hand citrons
1 2-liter glass jar with glass lid and rubber gasket
1 1.5 liter bottle of unflavored vodka
Sharp knife and cutting board
To start, when choosing Cthulhufruit, your nose is your best tool. You want to buy one that is all-yellow, without any soft spots or mold, with a very clean citrus scent. As far as appearance is concerned, run amok, but remember that a lot of little tentacles will produce more essential oils than a few big ones. If you’re wanting to horrify friends and family, though, go mad and get the most horrifying one out of the batch. Other than that, avoid ones with brown bruising spots or ones that are obviously wilted or old.
Wash your Cthulhufruit well to remove any waxes or pesticides used on it in the orchard, and don’t be afraid to soak it in water for a few minutes to remove any dirt or dust collected during transport. Don’t soak it for hours, though, and definitely don’t use hot water. A five-minute bath should be fine.
If you have to wait a few days between purchase and processing, put your Cthulhufruit in the refrigerator, preferably in the crisper. If it starts to mold, just cut out those soft parts with a sharp knife and toss them in the compost bin.
At this point, it’s time to start slicing. The stem end needs to go. Until very recently, most Buddha’s Hand citrons were shipped with a little length of stem, mostly so they could be hung from the ceiling to freshen rooms. These days, with various nasty citrus diseases making the rounds, you won’t see any citrus leaves or stems on transported fruit, especially fruit that could be shipped to citrus-producing states in the US. Either way, you don’t want to leave that in your mix.
Starting from the stem end, get to slicing. Technically, you could mince up those Cthulhufruit in order to maximize the amount of surface area being exposed, but the idea is just as much for presentation as for efficiency. I generally slice until I get to distinctive tentacles at the blossom end of the fruit, and then separate those.
Now take your clean glass jar, and wash it out if it isn’t already clean, and pack it with your freshly sliced Cthulhufruit. I generally stack the end slices in the center, leaving room around the edges for the tentacles.
If you have more Cthulhufruit than you have room in the jar, don’t be afraid to put on the top and shake the hell out of it in order to get it to settle. Either way, that jar should hold three sliced citrons, unless you had a source for particularly big ones. In which case, I’m coming over to your house to eat your brain so I can steal your superpowers.
Now, some people may ask “Why use vodka? Why not use Everclear?” Well, that’s for several reasons. Firstly, most of the aromatics in citrons are both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble, so a good 90 proof mix works the best to get it all. Secondly, Everclear works best for making extracts of herbs and other purely alcohol-soluble spices. Thirdly, Everclear is ridiculously expensive, and vodka gets the job done for a much cheaper price.
As for the type of vodka used, that’s between you and the supreme deity of your choice. I’d recommend against flavored vodkas, because they’d likely overwhelm the more delicate notes that you’re trying to capture from the Cthulhufruit. My personal choice is Dripping Springs vodka, because I’m a Texas patriot, it’s very good vodka for the price, and it’s available in most liquor stores in North Texas. If you find anything better, please feel free to let me know.
Fill the jar right up to the rim with your vodka. If you have extra, that’s great. If you don’t, just do your best to keep the air gap at the top of the jar as small as possible. (I’ll explain why later.)
Once the jar is full, seal it up. If you can possibly help it, use a jar with a glass or strong plastic lid, because you do NOT want this mix corroding a metal lid.
Finally, put this in a dark, cool place and don’t touch it for at least three months. In my case, I have the perfect place: the bar in the corner of the living room. It’s almost completely undisturbed all year round, and if anyone looks inside, won’t they be surprised?
When that steeping period is done, what remains is to drain off the vodka, bottle it, and put the extract back into a cool dark place until you’re ready to use it. It works very well in small doses, no more than a teaspoon, in fish dishes, and it can be used to complement the flavor of lemon and/or lime. This batch here is going to come in very handy with an experiment in kicking up a Key lime pie recipe I’ve been wanting to try for a while, and you can only imagine what will happen with adding it to lemon bars.
Now, I warned against leaving a large air gap at the top of the jar while the Cthulhufruit is steeping, and that’s for a very good reason. This new batch is being made because I left the last one steeping for a bit too long, with a little too little vodka. The oils and the vodka reacted with the oxygen in the air in the jar and some of the compounds oxidized: it’s still good for drinking and for cooking, but it adds a caramel-like flavor that drowns out the subtlety of many of the aromatic oils.
Another factor to consider is that, no matter how good a seal, you’re going to lose a certain amount of alcohol from evaporation through the lid seal. In scotch production, this is referred to as “the angel’s share,” although I’m sure that no angel wants anything to do with it. Let’s call it “Nyarlathotep’s share” and leave it at that. The more vodka you have in the jar, the less Nyarlathotep’s share you’ll have by the time you’re ready to drain off the jar, and the less air that’s inside the jar to hasten oxidation. The above photo shows what happens after a year, and when you consider how much evaporation occurs through a whiskey barrel, now you understand why twenty-year and thirty-year scotch are so much more expensive than 12-year.
Another problem with leaving it too long is that the pulp tends to disintegrate slightly. Again, this doesn’t affect the drinkability or cookability of the extract. This just means that trying to strain the extract when bottling it isn’t going to work very well. I normally use a gold-plated coffee filter to strain Cthulhufruit extract, and after a year, the pulp sediment was just thick enough to jam up that filter.
As can be seen, some of the vodka is absorbed by the Cthulhufruit pith, and Nyarlathotep’s share takes the rest. I plan to try both this and the fresh batch as extracts in different meals, and the rest of this one is going to friends. Now all I need is a new jar, a fresh Cthulhufruit, and a label reading “Specimen preserved in formalin, 8/20/1890”.