Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Lemon Tart that Kicks Butt

Ok, I know that's an unusual title for a blog post, but this is really good lemon tart. It's one I've made many times over the last 20 years or so. It is one of the few things I make which I think is better than what I might get in a restaurant or a bakery. The lemon tart is fairly... tart. I don't like super-sweet lemon desserts, so this really appeals to my palate.

It's really a fairly simple dessert. It's a sweetened crust filled with lemon curd. The lemon curd is made from scratch and seems tricky at first, but really the only tricky part is determining when the curd has thickened sufficiently to start adding the butter. You just have to keep a close eye on it while you're stirring.

I got the recipe out of a cookbook that I bought when I was an undergraduate students. It's from sort of a strange series from the "California Culinary Academy" and was published by, of all things, Ortho Books, a division of Chevron Chemical Company. Really? A series of cookbooks from the folks that brought you gasoline, Round-Up weed killer and Miracle Gro? I also can't remember where I got the book. Bookstore? Hardware store? Gas station? The California Culinary Academy is apparently a real place--a for-profit cooking school in San Francisco--one which recently lost a multimillion dollar lawsuit brought by students by allegedly charging huge amounts of tuition and lying about job placement success rate afterward. Oops.

No matter, it's a really tasty tart. The recipe I use here is adapted from Easy and Elegant Meals: Cakes and Pastries, 1985 from Ortho Books.

Sweet Tart Pastry-- Pate sucrée
For a 10 inch scalloped tart band
or a 10- by 2-inch tart tin
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup cold butter

Mix together flour, salt and sugar. Cut in the 1/2 cup butter with a pastry cutter until it is well distributed through the dry ingredients. In a small bowl, mix egg yolks and vanilla extract together until just combined. Mix the egg yolk mixture into the butter and dry ingredients and toss until well combined. Bring the dough together and form into a flat disk. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove dough from refrigerator, pound it out then roll out into a large disk--rolling it out between two large sheets of plastic wrap will make it easier to transfer to the tart pan. Take off top layer of plastic wrap and gently transfer dough disk into the tart pan. This type of dough tears easily, but is also very easy to patch. Your first go at getting it in the pan will be something of a mess. Just take the extra dough and press it down to patch tears or fill in holes. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could skip the rolling and just press the dough into the pan. Once the dough is in the pan with the excess trimmed, put the tart pan into the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to let the dough firm back up before blind baking the crust.

To blind bake the crust, preheat the oven to 400 F. Prick a fork all around the dough to keep the crust from bubbling. Line the tart with aluminum foil or parchment paper, and fill with dried beans, aluminum weights, or a cake pan slightly smaller than the tart pan. Bake about 15 minutes until crust is mostly set. Remove the aluminum foil and beans (or whatever you used). Bake the pastry shell another 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven an let cool completely before filling with the lemon curd.

Butter cut into flour/sugar mixture, tossed with the egg yolks.
You can see how it will need to be coaxed into a ball.
It took a little pressing and persuading, but here's the dough disk.
After you take it out of the refrigerator, give it some good whacks
with the rolling pin to flatten before rolling.
Rolled out pastry dough
First attempt at getting it into the tart pan.
But see? It's fixable! 
Blind baking, part I.
The finished tart shell! See, that wasn't so bad. A bit
finicky, but doable.

Lemon Curd
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (lemon rind, just the yellow part)
1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces and softened (left to come to room temperature)

In a stainless steel bowl, combine eggs, yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. Place the bowl over a pot of boiling water and whisk over medium heat (stirring constantly) until the mixture thickens to about the consistency of mayonnaise--about 5 to 10 minutes. Don't let it go much beyond that point, especially not to boiling, or you'll end up with curdled (i.e. scrambled) eggs. The mixture will start to foam as it warms, and will be quite foamy and slightly lighter in color around the time it thickens. Thickening seems to take forever, but once you notice it beginning to thicken things will move along quickly. Remove from heat and quickly whisk in the butter a piece at a time. Once all the butter is incorporated, pour the still-warm curd into the pastry shell and let it come to room temperature. The curd, fully thickened when you pour it,  will quickly set as it cools. If it remains liquid-y after 5 minutes, you didn't cook it enough.

Strain the lemon juice before using. No one likes lemon
pips in their tart. Well, I don't, anyway.
Everything but the butter!
Over the boiling water and beginning to foam.
Thickened and ready to mix in the butter. The foam has been
incorporated into the curd and the whole think has lightened.
After the butter and into the tart shell. Not fancy, but
oh so good. Have fun licking the bowl that the
lemon curd was in. This is one time I save the bowl for
myself rather than letting the kids have it.
And you're done! I suppose you could gussy it up with some cooked meringue, some fruit, or whipped cream, but I usually serve it plain. I own a 10-inch tart pan, but you could probably use a large pie plate if that were all you had. Don't be scared of making the lemon curd--if the mixture does curdle on you, it doesn't take long to whip up another batch and try again. Try not to eat so much of the warm curd that you don't have enough for the tart!

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