This lemon meringue tart is the most gorgeous, extraordinary tart of its kind. The lemon cream filling is enriched with butter and deep lemon flavor. The recipe can be taken in parts, with the almond crust and lemon filling made in advance.
You can imagine how long the days, how sore the back, how bruised the ego of a culinary intern during her first month on the job in a restaurant. I learned at least something every day at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco, and many somethings many days.
My favorite time of day was around 3:30, when lunch service was finished and plates were put up for staff lunch. I tried to be nonchalant as we queued up for eats, yet I couldn’t help but want to take cuts, or elbow my way to the start of the line. Delectable dishes had been wrought by the sous chef out of leftovers, out of mish mash. Was I starving and therefore everything tasted of perfection? A pile of chicken legs that were tender and deeply lacquered with Asian flavor stands out in my memory. I was ravenous but truly, this food was exceptional, especially because no ingredient in the joint was anything but the best.
The most exciting part of the staff lunch line was at the far end near the bread station where I’d been slicing loaf after merciless loaf of Acme breads all day. Here sat a plate of stray desserts—a jagged edge or two of brownie, a stack of peanut butter cookies. If we were lucky, there would be a canelé that hadn’t made the cut or that was day-old. If you have not had life’s tremendous joy of eating a canelé, may I urge you to find one someday, someway, and indulge? And then let me know when you do? These little custardy cakes have a dark, caramelized exterior that comes, in a purists’ kitchen at least, from beeswax-lined molds. This crisp mysteriousness contrasts a soft, pale yellow interior cake. And between the two, you are a lost and found soul.
Beyond the canelé, I felt I’d won the mega-millions if only a corner of Boulette’s lemon meringue tart made it onto my plate at staff lunch. I’d been watching the construction of the tart with laser-sharp attention whenever possible during my work day there. I saw the voluptuous meringue piped in agile puffs around the tart, then torched golden brown with a big kitchen flame. It was a gorgeous affair.
I saw that the pâte sucrée was pushed into the tart pan rather than rolled, and that it was chilled in blocks rather than disks and then sliced off. These slices made the crust, especially the edges, perfectly even.
I didn’t feel I could ask many questions, not wanting to interrupt the flow and also feeling the need to redeem myself after having used the dry pastry brush for a wet job (the brush was labeled DRY but I didn’t see that until it was too late. The reaction was somewhat unforgiving. I walked next door to Sur la Table and replaced the brush, which seemed to shock and to exonerate).
Then I got bolder. What can you tell me about this dough, and why the crust is so good? In hushed tones I was told: Melted butter. Melted? Whoa, whoa, whoa. Tart dough is all about the chill, or so I thought. I scoured the internet for a crust made with melted butter; I asked everyone I knew about a melted butter crust, but came up empty. I finally gave up on the melted facet and turned to a pâte sucrée recipe I had gotten from a French chef in Chicago, one that includes almonds and doesn’t betray me as my crusts had in culinary school, and simply chilled and sliced it as they do at Boulette’s. It worked beautifully.
How about the curd? I asked. This was the silkiest, most flavorful curd I’d ever eaten. That’s butter too, I was told. Back to the internet, which led me to the inimitable Dori Greenspan and her take on the French pastry icon Pierre Herme’s ‘lemon cream.’ It was full of butter, and flavored with a double whammie of lemon juice and lemon zest. I asked the chef herself at Boulette’s if this was what she based her lemon tart on. No, she said, not at all. But that’s good too, she said, familiar with Herme’s lemon cream.
Good is the world’s most egregious understatement for our lemon tart. Dori Greenspan calls it The Most Extraordinary. This tart is an effort, it is a splurge, and it is what’s been on my mind whenever I’ve daydreamed about the sweet I would indulge in at the end of my sugar fast this Lent. Kind of like the humbling experience of being an intern, it has felt like a long journey at times, the fasting and the efforts at renewal. Sometimes I think the interning was worth it just for the exposure to the lemon tart alone, so no doubt there is a most extraordinary fruit of the spirit to be had that is well worth waiting for too.
Lemon Meringue Tart
This tart has three main elements: the crust, the curd, and the meringue. Both the crust dough and the curd can be made in advance and then assembled, but the meringue must be made the day the tart is served. Meringue can be piped on the tart or spooned on in easy swirls. Or not at all! This tart is also delicious without the meringue.The lemon curd is based on a recipe for “The Most Extraordinary Lemon Tart”by the great Dori Greenspan. She calls the curd “lemon cream”; it can be refrigerated for four days and frozen for up to two months prior to assembling in the tart crust.
For the crust:
- 1 2/3 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds
- 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
For the lemon cream:
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Zest of 3 organic lemons, finely grated
- 4 large eggs
- 3/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed (4-5 lemons)
- 2 sticks plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 1-inch pieces and softened
For the meringue:
- 4 large egg whites, room temperature
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Confectioners' sugar, for finishing
Make the crust:
Blend the flour, sugar, and almonds in a food processor until the nuts are finely ground. Using on/off turns, cut in the butter until a coarse meal forms. Add the egg and blend just until dough forms. Gather dough into ball; flatten into a square 1-inch thick, wrap in plastic, and chill 1 hour.
Line the bottom of a 10-inch round, removable bottom tart pan with parchment paper. Cut the dough into1-inch slices.Lay the slices in the bottom of the pan and push them together, closing all fissures. Press the bottom of a glass against the dough to flatten and smooth. Then line the edges of the tart with slices of dough placed horizontally around the fluted edges. Press this dough into the bottom of the crust and into the fluted rim. Refrigerate the crust for one hour.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 17 minutes. Remove the crust from the oven. You will notice that the crust is somewhat puffed up; this should be tamped down with the bottom of a glass or similar flat, heavy tool. Cool the crust and then remove the fluted ring by setting the tart pan over a jar and letting the ring fall to the counter. Use a flat metal spatula to lift the tart off of the metal tart pan bottom. Place on a plate to fill with curd and top with meringue.
Make the lemon cream:
Have a thermometer, preferably an instant-read, a strainer,and a blender (first choice) or food processor at the ready. Bring a few inches of water to a simmer in a saucepan.
Put the sugar and zest in a large metal bowl that can be fittedinto the pan of simmering water. Off heat, work the sugar and zest together between your fingers until the sugar is moist, grainy and very aromatic. Whisk in the eggs followed by the lemon juice.
Fit the bowl into the pan (make certain the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl) and cook, stirring with the whisk as soon as the mixture feels tepid to the touch. You want to cook the cream until it reaches 180°F. As you whisk the cream over heat—whisking constantly to keep the eggs from scrambling—you’ll see that the cream will start out light and foamy, then the bubbles will get bigger, and then, as the cream is getting closer to 180°F, it will start to thicken and the whisk will leave tracks. Heads up at this point—the tracks mean the cream is almost ready. Don’t stop whisking and don’t stop checking the temperature. Getting to temp can take as long as 10 minutes.
As soon as you reach 180°F, pull the cream from theheat and strain it into the container of a blender (or food processor); discard the zest. Let the cream rest, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
Turn the blender to high and, with the machine going, add about 5 pieces of butter at a time. Turn off the blender and scrape down the sides of the container as needed while you’re incorporating the butter. Once the butter is in, keep the machine going—to get the perfect light, airy texture, you must continue to beat the cream for another 3 minutes. If your machine gets hot, give it a little rest between beats.
Pour the cream into a container, press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface to create an airtight seal,and chill the cream for at least 4 hours or overnight. When you are ready to construct the tart, just whisk the cream to loosen it and spoon it into the tart shell.
For the meringue:
Make the meringue the same day you're serving the tart. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar. I use the whisk attachment to stir. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure that the bowl has some clearance above the water (we're cooking very gently with the residual or steam heat here). Heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved and mixture reaches 175 degrees, about 8 minutes.
Transfer the whites to the stand mixer with the wire whisk attached. Beat, starting slow and increasing the speed steadily, until the mixer is on full. Whip until the stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes.
Use a large, 1/2-inch piping tip to pipe the meringue on the tart, or spoon the meringue making decorative swirls on top.
Brown the meringue either by skimming the edges of the meringue with a kitchen torch, or by placing the tart in a 350 degree oven just until the meringue is lightly browned. Chill until the tart is cold, at least one hour. Sift powdered sugar around the edge of the tart, and serve chilled.