In the cold months of winter, citrus fruit brightens the produce bins in the market as well as our recipes. Whether we're squeezing fresh orange juice in the morning or making tropical drinks for parties and dreaming of the Caribbean, these bright fruits get us through the short days and long nights of January and February.

And not just the fruit itself. To me, citrus zest is the salt of the fruit world. Just as salt brings out the flavor in food, so the zest of oranges, lemons and limes -- potent even in small amounts -- contributes tremendously. Citrus juice certainly adds its flavor to recipes, but it is the zest that packs the citrus punch.

What exactly is zest? To clarify terms, the peel is the rind, or skin, of citrus fruit and includes everything but the fruit's flesh. Zest is the outermost colored layer of the rind and is the part of the peel you want to use. Be careful to use only the zest itself and not any of the bitter inner white layer, or pith, which lies beneath.

Zest can be used as large strips, thin julienne slices, finely chopped pieces or grated pieces. The large strips of zest are usually cooked in sugar syrups or other liquids in order to flavor the liquid. A small, sharp knife or vegetable peeler is a good tool for removing large strips of zest from fruit. If any pith clings to the zest, scrape it off with a knife. The large strips can be cut into thin strips or chopped.

A special tool called a zester removes short slivers. Thin strips can be used as a garnish, or they can be candied in a sugar syrup.

Chopped pieces can be incorporated into fillings, cake batters or dough.

The most common way to use zest is grated. For years I used the small teardrop-shaped holes of a standard box grater for this purpose. But the new microplane graters, patterned after a woodworker's rasp, have replaced it. The zest seems to fly off this tool, and grating goes from being a chore to being fast and fun.

Citrus peel can be cut or grated ahead, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for up to two days. A medium-size lemon yields about 11/2 teaspoons of grated zest. The thicker the skin on the fruit, the more zest it yields.

Keep in mind that lemon and orange peels tend to hold their color when cooked, but lime peel fades if cooked in a liquid and is not so attractive. When I use lime zest in a glaze or to garnish a dessert, I never cook it.

And be sure to look for organic fruit whose peel has not been sprayed and, in all cases, to thoroughly rinse citrus fruit before removing the skin. If a recipe calls for juice and zest, remember to cut off the peel or grate the zest before cutting up the fruit and squeezing its juice.

Once citrus fruit loses its protective skin it does not keep for a long time. Peeled fruit should be squeezed for its juice or wrapped in plastic wrap, then covered and refrigerated to be used within a couple of days.

Orange and Vanilla Mousse

With Glazed Orange Peel

(6 servings)

Though labor intensive, this layered parfait makes quite an impression. Glistening strips of glazed orange peel make the perfect accent as a garnish.

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from about 2 oranges)

3/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1 cup cold heavy (whipping) cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Glazed Orange Zest for garnish (recipe follows)

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and orange juice, stirring until the cornstarch dissolves. Set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk the sugar, eggs and egg yolks until blended. Whisking constantly, slowly add the cornstarch mixture, whisking until completely combined. Slowly whisk in the melted butter until completely incorporated. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, just until the mixture is hot and the sugar dissolves, about 4 minutes. Then increase the heat to medium-high and, stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil. Cook just until the mixture boils, thickens and looks opaque, about 5 minutes. Just before the mixture boils it should look foamy on top. Immediately strain the sauce into a medium bowl, discarding any solids. Add the grated zest and stir to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing so the surface adheres to the sauce. Using the tip of a knife, poke a few holes in the plastic wrap to allow the steam to escape. Refrigerate until cool, at least 2 hours and up to overnight. The sauce should thicken as it cools.

To serve, have ready 6 stemmed glasses.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the cream and vanilla just until the cream begins to thicken. Mixing constantly, slowly add half of the chilled orange sauce; beat just until soft peaks form.

Place a small spoonful of the remaining reserved orange sauce in the bottom of each glass. Divide two-thirds of the whipped orange cream among the glasses. Then spoon the remaining orange sauce over the cream in the glasses. Using a knife, gently swirl the sauce lightly into the whipped orange cream. Spoon the remaining orange cream into each glass, dividing it evenly. Top each glass with Glazed Orange Zest. Serve cold.

Per serving: 441 calories, 4 gm protein, 40 gm carbohydrates, 30 gm fat, 229 mg cholesterol, 18 gm saturated fat, 41 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Glazed Orange Zest

(6 servings)

This simple recipe makes something snazzy out of something that is normally cast aside. The sweet-tart orange strips are a lovely counterpoint to many desserts, whether an orange mousse, a plain cheesecake or virtually anything chocolate.

1 orange, washed

1/3 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the orange in long strips. If necessary, using a knife, scrape off any white pith that remains on the zest. Cut the zest into matchstick-size strips, place in a small saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil and immediately drain the zest and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Return the same saucepan to medium-high heat and bring the 1/3 cup water to a simmer with the sugar and vinegar, stirring frequently. Add the blanched zest, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the strips to a plate; set aside to cool. (May cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.)

Orange Pistachio Cake

With Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

(9 servings)

With its rich, nutty flavor and thick mantle of frosting, this cake is irresistible. And since it's not a layer cake, there is no potential for lopsidedness.

For the cake:

Butter for the pan

1 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup canola or corn oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) finely ground unsalted pistachio nuts

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/2 scup sour cream

For the frosting:

6 ounces soft cream cheese, at room temperature

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

21/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) coarsely chopped unsalted pistachio nuts (optional)

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 8-by-8-by-2-inch pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment or wax paper cut to fit and butter the paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the eggs and granulated sugar until the mixture is fluffy, thick and lightened in color, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the oil, then the vanilla and almond extracts and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the finely ground pistachios and orange zest and mix until combined. With the mixer still on low speed, gradually add the flour mixture and mix just until incorporated. Add the sour cream and mix just until no white streaks remain. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, until the top feels firm when touched lightly and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. To unmold the cake, use a small, sharp knife to loosen the sides from the pan if necessary. Invert the cake onto a wire rack and remove and discard the paper. Invert the cake again onto a wire rack so it is right side up. Set aside to cool completely.

For the frosting: In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and zest until the cream cheese and butter are thoroughly blended and the mixture is smooth. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the confectioners' sugar. Continue beating until the sugar is incorporated and the frosting is smooth. Using a rubber spatula or a knife, spread a thick layer of frosting evenly over the top of the cake. Spread the remaining frosting over the sides. If desired, sprinkle chopped pistachios over the cake. Serve at room temperature. (May cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.)

Per serving: 577 calories, 7 gm protein, 62 gm carbohydrates, 34 gm fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 13 gm saturated fat, 272 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Lime Mint Granita

(6 servings)

I like to serve this striking frozen dessert in chilled martini or margarita glasses. It works equally well as a potent palate cleanser and a refreshing dessert. Granita (grah-nee-TAH, as the Italians call it, or granite -- grah-nee-TAY -- to the French ) has a slightly granular texture that is not at all like a smooth sorbet. It is simply a mixture of sugar syrup and fruit juice that is frozen in a pan. Making granita does not require any sort of machine; instead you pour the mixture into a pan and freeze it, stirring occasionally with a fork.

3 cups water

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup packed coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves, plus whole mint leaves for (optional) garnish

2 teaspoons lime zest

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 3 to 4 large limes)

Have ready a 13-by-9-by-2-inch or similar size nonreactive metal pan.

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the water and sugar, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the mint and set aside to cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. (The longer the mint is steeped in the syrup, the more intense the mint flavor.)

Strain the liquid into a medium bowl, pressing on the mint leaves to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the mint leaves. Add the lime zest and juice to the liquid and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the pan and freeze for 30 minutes.

Using a fork, scrape the frozen crystals that have formed around the edge of the pan toward the center of the pan. Return the pan to the freezer and repeat the stirring process every 30 minutes until no liquid remains, 2 to 21/2 hours total. After the third stirring, the mixture should have a slushy texture.

To serve, remove the granita from the freezer, scrape it to break it into small shards and spoon it into individual dishes. If desired, garnish with whole mint leaves. (May cover the pan tightly and freeze for up to 1 week. It may be necessary to remove the pan from the freezer a few minutes prior to serving to facilitate scraping.)

Per serving: 130 calories, trace protein, 34 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 1 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Lemon-Drenched Bundt Cake

(12 servings)

This simple bundt cake boasts a double hit of lemon. The batter is flecked with lemon zest so it enhances the flavor as it bakes; the resulting cake is then drenched with a syrup that is as sweet or as tart as you prefer.

Be sure to glaze the cake while it is warm.

For the cake:

2 cups flour

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus additional for the pan

4 large eggs

2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

For the syrup:

About 1 to 11/2 cups confectioners' sugar, depending on desired tartness

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom, sides and center tube of a 91/2- or 10-inch-diameter, fixed-bottom tube or bundt pan with sides at least 33/4-inches high. If using a flat-bottomed pan, line the bottom with parchment or wax paper cut to fit and butter the paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk and butter just until the butter melts and the mixture is hot (if using a candy thermometer, it should measure about 140 degrees). Do not allow the mixture to boil. Remove from the heat; set aside.

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the eggs and granulated sugar until fluffy, thick and lightened in color, about 1 minute. Add the vanilla and lemon zest and mix until combined. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, beating just until it is incorporated. Still mixing on low speed, gradually add the hot milk mixture and mix just until smooth. The batter should be thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes.

For the syrup: Sift the confectioners' sugar into a large bowl to break up any lumps. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over low heat, heat the water, granulated sugar and butter, stirring frequently, until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon zest and confectioners' sugar.

To glaze the cake, using a small, sharp knife, first loosen the sides of the warm cake from the sides and the center tube of the pan. Carefully invert the cake onto a wire rack, then remove the pan. Remove and discard the paper liner, if necessary, and invert the cake again so it is right side up. Using a toothpick, prick the top and sides of the warm cake at 1-inch intervals. Spoon about 1/3 of the syrup over the top of the cake. Some syrup will spill onto the sides. Using a pastry brush, brush some of the syrup generously over the sides and center hole of the cake. Wait until the syrup is completely absorbed. Prick the top again with the toothpick and spoon as much of the remaining syrup as desired slowly over the top of the cake. Set aside to cool completely. Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 386 calories, 5 gm protein, 59 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 106 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 191 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Orange-Butter Cookies

(Makes about 32 cookies)

Many pastry chefs sneak a pinch of grated orange zest into their chocolate chip cookie dough. The citrus brightens the flavor of the cookie, whether it comes from a basic butter or a dense oatmeal dough. However, these buttery cookies taste just fine even without the chocolate.

To bring out the most butter flavor in these cookies, bake them just until the edges begin to turn golden.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup sugar

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

2 cups all-purpose flour

About 1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips, preferably miniature (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, salt and sugar until smooth. Add the egg yolks, vanilla and almond extracts and orange zest and mix until incorporated. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the flour, mixing just until thoroughly incorporated. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the chocolate chips.

Roll a scant tablespoon of dough between the palms of your hands, shape it into a ball and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Using the bottom of a glass dipped in water, flatten each ball into a circle. The flattened cookies should be about 1 inch apart.

Bake the cookies until the edges are lightly golden but not browned, 15 to 18 minutes. Reverse the baking sheets after 10 minutes, from front to back and top to bottom, to ensure that the cookies bake evenly. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack to cool for about 2 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

Per cookies: 113 calories, 1 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 20 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Elinor Klivans's latest book is "Fearless Baking -- Over 100 Recipes That Anyone Can Make" (Simon & Schuster, 2001)