'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Not-so-tangy lemon tart

'Lemon lovers are a special breed. They are shamelessly devoted to their favourite flavour, and they like it to be assertive and bold.' So wrote Tish Boyle, author of the Cake Book and one of my favourite American recipe writers. Since childhood, I've always been aversive to anything sour. Sure, I find vinegar and lemon juice essential in highlighting the flavours in a dish, but among the 'five flavours' sourness is the one that I've always been apprehensive about. I'm defensively sceptical whenever people tell me that an orange is sweet because I would always find it incredibly sour when I taste it myself - it's a topic which I've decided that I can trust no-one about. For the same reason I try to avoid tomatoes, and all kinds of berries. So I'm sorry, I don't belong to the breed.

That said, I do love the bright, zingy flavour of lemon. Thankfully, you can get plenty of citrus flavour from the skin and be light-handed with how much lemon juice you use. Now a true lemon-lover would argue that sourness is as essential a part of lemony-ness as the zesty fragrance, but I just can't. I shiver when I eat anything moderately tangy - I blame it on my genetics. Perhaps I should be equally magnanimous when I hear people complain that something is 'too chocolatey'.

Tarte au citron is a classic French pastry that I have mixed feelings about (sorry, it just sounds better in French). I love the combination of a crisp sweet pastry crust and a creamy lemony filling, but the 'orthodox' version is just way too tart for my taste. In addition to being too tart, I find that there's an excessive amount of sugar to counterbalance all that acidity. When I make one for my own enjoyment, I tone down the amounts of both lemon juice and sugar considerably so that it is fully of zesty lemon flavours but light on acidity and sweetness. I actually feel that this lighter reincarnation does more justice to the fruit - I want a breeze of refreshing citrus flavour, not an acidity attack. True lemon lovers might disagree though!

If you haven't made tarts before, you'd be horrified by how many steps there are - at least I was! However, your work and patience will be amply rewarded when you bite into a crispy, buttery tart shell with a good creamy filling. As I wrote before, it's probably the most satisfying textural contrast there is in food.

Not-so-tangy tarte au citron

If you like your lemon tart tangy, this recipe is not for you. In which case I would recommend that you try Pierre Hermé's version, which involves a unique way of preparing the filling with a most silky texture. Or, you can use juices and zests from more lemons and reduce the amount of cream accordingly - you will need 450ml of filling for a 9-inch tart shell.

The biggest challenge in making any custard-based tart is to keep the bottom crust crisp even though you're essentially pouring liquid onto it - we're working against physics here! There're a few things that could help with (but not totally avoid) that:

1. Apply a seal to the crust right before pouring in the filling. Eggwash is the most common method. Chocolate works even better because it forms an insulating layer upon cooling, but its flavour may not go with the filling.

2. Pour in hot rather than cold filling so that you shorten the time the custard filling needs to cook (i.e. the time it has to soften the crust!).

3. Bake the tart on the lower third of the oven so that there's more bottom heat and the bottom part of the tart would cook faster.

I didn't post a recipe for the sweet pastry this time - but I will do in the near future. Use a recipe that you like, or skip the whole process and buy a prepared tart/graham cracker crust from the supermarket. It won't be the same but saves you an awful lot of work. I'm also aware that ideally one should really bake blind with baking beans, but I've always found that rather cumbersome. The freezing prior to baking prevents the crust from rising well enough I think, although if you really baked blind religiously you wouldn't get the ugly 'holes' that popped up on my crust.

You'll need:

1 quantity of shortcrust pastry or pâte sucrée enough for lining a 9-inch tart pan

One 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom

For the lemon custard filling
Juice of one lemon, about 40ml
Enough cream to make up a total of 450ml (I used 410ml this time)
85g sugar
3 eggs and 3 yolks

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 190C/400F.

Roll out the pastry

1. Roll out the sweet pastry between two pieces of clingfilm/plastic wrap until it's about the thickness of a coin. Remove the top piece of clingfilm and flip the pastry over to the tart pan - now the bottom piece of clingfilm will become the top. Leave the clingfilm on. Press the pastry against the edges of the pan so that the crust is set firmly against the pan. Leave the excess pastry hanging at the side.

2. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Prepare the lemon custard filling

3. Grab your lemon, remove the yellow part of the skin with a microplane zester or a fine grater. I used the lovely zester I bought in Prague which conveniently stores the zests - it's a nightmare having zests flying everywhere as you zest them!

Source of lemon-ness!

4. Squeeze the (zested) lemon to extract its juice - I got about 40ml this time. Add it to a small saucepan along with the grated zests. Add enough cream to make up to 450ml (okay, it was 451ml this time).

5. Bring the cream to just to a boil on medium heat and set aside. Don't overheat and spill it!

Boiling the zests with the cream releases all their aromatic oil.

Pre-bake the tart shell

6. Remove the tart pan from the fridge and carefully lift off the clingfilm. If you see any holes, patch it by snipping off a tiny piece from the excess pastry hanging at the side and use it to fill the gap. Snip off an extra piece of dough from the side in case any cracks or holes emerge later after baking.

7. Place the tart pan (on the baking sheet) on the rack in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 180C/350F and continue to bake for an extra 10-15 minutes, until the colour turns a very pale brown.

8. Now take the tart pan out from the oven, and use a sharp knife to trim off the excess pastry hanging at the side. If you see any cracks or holes, use the bit of dough you saved and pinch it in.

9. Put the tart pan back to the oven and bake for another 10-15 minutes. The crust should be fully baked and turns a golden brown. Remove from oven and save the bits of fallen pastry - you'll want to nibble on them later. Leave the oven on.

Could have been a little browner!

10. Whisk together the eggs and egg yolks in a medium bowl with a wire whisk. Use a brush to apply it to the bottom of the crust evenly. Return to the oven and bake for 2 minutes so that the eggwash is dried out. Repeat the process one more time. Remove from the oven.

 Complete the custard filling

11. Add the sugar to the egg mixture and whisk until smooth. Reheat the cream until it's almost boiling, and then pour it onto the eggs gradually. Whisk with your other hand while you are doing this.

 12. Taste the cream and adjust with lemon juice and sugar - the proportions were perfect for me but maybe not for you. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the zests and any bits of egg. Press hard on the sieve to extract all the lemony goodness from the zests.

Final baking

13. Return the tart pan back to the oven and pour the custard filling onto the tart pan - be careful! You would want to do this with an oven glove. The filling should fill right to the top. If you filled the tart with the filling first before transferring it to the oven, you risk spilling half of the filling by the time it gets to the oven.

14. Close the oven and bake for 10 minutes at the previous temperature of 180C/350F. Reduce the temperature to 150C/300F and bake for another 15-20 minutes or so. The mixture should jiggle ever so slightly when you give it a gentle shake. Every oven is different so it's difficult to give a precise timing.

15. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Chill for at least a few hours before serving.

Slightly overbaked... was writing a post for the blog!

16. If you want you can brûlée the top with sifted icing sugar for a dramatic effect. Repeat once more for a really crispy result.

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