Monday, April 19, 2010

on perfect lemon tarts

I have this theory about tuna sandwiches. The tuna sandwich seems to be something that people imbue with deeply felt, intensely personal preferences. It starts with the water vs oil debate, then it goes deeper. The proper mayonnaise ratio. The question of pickle. The marriage rending issue of hot or cold. And don't even get started on additions like dill or onion or green Tabasco or Old Bay. What it comes down to for me is simply, "If you want a tuna sandwich exactly the way you want it, make it at home." This is the Grand Unifying Theory of Tuna Sandwiches.

(I like tuna sandwiches a lot. Probably why I've spent so much energy thinking about this.)

I've come to realize that this holds true about lemon tarts as well. It's such a simple thing, a lemon tart. A crust of some sort holds a lemon filling. Easy, yes. But that ease makes it fall prey to mediocrity. A thick, boring crust. A lemonish filling (or worse, lemonesque). Accessorized with all sorts of craziness. Or, the worst possible circumstance, a SWEET dessert. And yet, we'll eat these bad lemon tarts because they are ok. Safe. Fit the bill. It's like the fast food cheeseburger of pastry. Its like a bad tuna fish sandwich.

So what is a good lemon tart? Rich, yet light on the tongue. Bright, a little sweet. A crust that has flavor but is not the focus. Mostly, it is about the lemon.

Now, these are reflections of my preferences. I want my lemon tart filled with a good, tart lemon curd. That lemon curd should be fresh, and well made, and really, I don't see a reason for it to have gelatin. It could be lemon curd that has been mixed with a bit of whipped cream, but only on certain alternate Thursdays. I want a well cooked sweet crust that is barely thick enough to hold the tart together, to provide the tiniest texture contrast. I don't need meringue, or whipped cream, or powdered sugar or a garnish of mint. Seriously, it is about the lemon.

Really, it is just better if I make it at home.

Lemon Curd for My Perfect Lemon Tart:
equal parts lemon juice (meyer lemon for variety), sugar, whole fresh eggs and cold butter

Mix sugar and lemon juice in a pot.
Beat eggs in a bowl.
Cut the cold butter into cubes.
Bring the sugar and lemon juice to a simmer over medium heat.
Add the juice mix to the eggs a little at a time, whisking constantly, until all is mixed together.
Pour eggs and juice back into the pot, and return to the burner over medium low heat.
Using a wooden spoon, stir constantly until the mixture thickens. It should not boil.
Pull the pot off the stove, and begin whisking in the cold butter, a few pieces at a time, until all the butter has been added and has melted.
Strain to remove any bits. Fill already cooked tart shells, and bake at 350 for 5 minutes to set. Cool and eat or refrigerate.


Call Me Mama said...

How important is the straining? I tend to leave things a little more "rustic" as long as we're not dealing with inedible pieces like seeds.

queenofsheba said...

It depends on how much care you take in mixing the eggs with the hot lemon juice, and with the stirring... if your eggs are too cold or you mix them too quickly, you may end up with bits of cooked egg whites. Straining is key in that case, but otherwise, not important. If you want to go really rustic, do it over a double boiler to lessen the chances for egg bits, and and some lemon zest to the curd.

Call Me Mama said...

Oooh, lemon zest. I have to try that. I was also wondering if you still had that recipe for the pie that uses the whole lemons? I don't know what it is but the warmer weather just screams out for tart instead of sweet.

pam said...

My mouth is literally watering just reading your post! That doesn't happen to me too often!

I thank you for sharing this how to for lemon curd. Lemon tart is on the menu this weekend!

queenofsheba said...

The lemon pie recipe is actually from an NPR story, here's the link:

kab said...

First, the tuna: You absolutely must try Oregon/West Coast albacore in your next sandwich. No water or oil, just its own natural juices. And low in mercury because it's caught young (10 lbs. or so) rather than the 30-40 lb. monsters the major brands use. And MSC certified. Downside? It's expensive but, to me, worth it. (I'm writing a story about it, that's why I'm so over-informed.)

And lemon tart? My favorite! And tart is the key word - enough to feel it in my back teeth! Thanks for a great post.

Nachiketa said...


love your tarts... so pretty to look n must be yummy to eat.
Loved surprising my friends with these :)
Lemon Cake, Lemon Tarts ~ Happy Anniversary Shikha & Sujith n Surprise for Sharad

The Variable, Crazy Over Desserts - Nachiketa
Catch me on facebook @ Crazy Over Desserts