During the winter CSA hiatus, we stopped at a farmers’ market for some produce. There, on one of the tables, were Meyer lemons. We didn’t quite have a plan for them just then and there, but we knew that you don’t want to pass up fresh Meyer lemons when they’re available, as you aren’t likely to find any more that season (it seems to be the same story with blood oranges).
At home, we thought about making Meyer lemon sorbet, and we still might, as we have a few lemons left, but we remembered a recipe that Dorie Greenspan called The Most Extraordinary French Lemon Cream Tart in her wonderful book, Baking: From My Home to Yours. We immediately knew where some of those Meyer lemons were headed.
Now, we didn’t really change the recipe, except to accommodate the Meyer lemons (ours were larger than regular lemons), and to make the tart into tartlets, which we think looks nicer. If you want a larger tart, just use a 9-inch crust.
Make six 5-inch tartlets.
If you can’t get Meyer lemons, you can make this with regular lemons. Do not even think of substituting lemon juice from a bottle. Regardless of the type of lemon, be aware that you’ll be using the zest, so you want to wash them thoroughly. Our method is as follows: wash lemons with dish detergent and rinse with boiling water. If we’re still concerned, we wash with dish detergent a second time. Why? Most fruit is covered with a food-grade wax to seal in moisture. That wax also seals in pesticides and other residue, so we want the wax stripped off, and the lemon skin clean. We recommend using the Thomas Keller Pâte Brisée recipe for the crust; it’s an easy-to-make crust that’s flaky and easy to roll. For the eggs, true free-range, if possible (and, note that saying free-range on the carton means almost nothing, so search out a local flock of hens). And, with this much butter in a recipe, you know it better be unsalted.
Procedure in detail:
Zest and juice. After washing your lemons, give them a good zesting to remove the outer layer of peel. You can use a microplane grater, which works wonderfully well, or a standard grater which works okay, or even a chef’s knife. Basically, you want to remove just the yellow portion of the peel, leaving the white pith intact. Then juice the lemons. You should end up with 3/4 of a cup of juice. If you need to juice another lemon or two to get 3/4 cup, do it. If you end up with too much, make lemonade.
Mix zest and sugar. Measure the sugar into a metal bowl that will fit into a saucepan so you can fashion a double boiler. You’ll want the bowl to sit over the boiling water, but not in it. We use the bowl from our stand mixer, as it fits perfectly in our 3-quart saucepan. Once the sugar is in place, add the zest, and, using your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until the sugar is moist and fragrant.
Whisk in eggs. Crack the eggs over the sugar and whisk together until the mixture is uniform in appearance.
Whisk in juice. Now, whisk in that lovely lemon juice, making a bright yellow custard base. At this point it will be thin, but just wait until we cook it and everything thickens.
Cook custard. Place the bowl over boiling water, and whisk, whisk, whisk. If at all possible, place a thermometer into the custard while you’re cooking and whisking. Yes, we know that seems to require three hands, but you can do it. Keep whisking continuously while watching the temperature rise. As the temperature reaches about 160°F, the custard will start to thicken. Continue cooking and whisking until it reaches 180°F.
Strain custard. You want a smooth, smooth custard, so pour the custard through a strainer into a blender or food processor. We don’t have a strainer, but we improvised by pouring it through our flour sifter, trapping the bits of zest. Use a rubber spatula to press through as much bright yellow custard as possible.
Cool. Check the temperature of the strained custard and wait until it drops to 140°F. You can stir it from time to time if you wish. Ours was about the right temperature once we finished straining, so we were good to go.
Blend in butter. Turn either the blender or food processor on high and start adding butter in tablespoon-size pieces. Once you’ve added all the butter, let the machine continue to run for another 3 to 4 minutes to make a nice light, fluffy custard.
Chill. Transfer the custard to a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard (otherwise, a skin will form), and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Divide and roll. Divide the chilled pâte brisée dough into six equal pieces and roll out each piece between two sheets of baking parchment. Press into tartlet pans; place a small square of parchment over the top and fill with pie weights. This will help the crust keep its shape while baking. If you don’t want to make tartlets, you can roll out all the dough for a 9-inch tart pan, instead.
Blind bake. Place the tartlet pans on a baking sheet and slide into the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the pie weights and parchment, and place the crusts back in the oven to bake another 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool. Place the shells on a rack and cool completely.
Fill. Once the shells are cool, take the custard out of the refrigerator, give it a quick stir, and fill each shell. Place the tartlets in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
We can’t say for sure that these are The Most Extraordinary French Lemon Cream Tarts, but we can say that they are very, very, creamy. They should be, with over three tablespoons of butter per tartlet. Even with all that butter, they don’t taste greasy or oily in the least; instead, they have a bright lemony flavor that is neither cloying or heavy. But they are rich, and we would be hard pressed to eat more than one tartlet at a sitting. As far as taste goes, these are definitely five-star, but we’ll have to say they’re more difficult to make (double boiler, straining, and blending in the butter) than other desserts, so we’ll give them four stars in the “worth it” rating. That said, if you have Meyer lemons, we can’t think of a better use.