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, 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! The tart is just as 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 the tart. Serves 8.
In an effort not to extend this post down into the floor for its length, I refrain from including the recipe in this spot as I usually do. Please find a PDF of this recipe here.