Thursday, July 26, 2012

Alice Medrich's Lemon Tart

As a child, I was a pro when it came to buffet dining. I knew the drill: arm yourself with a large plate, still hot from the plate warmer, scan all buffet tables, taking mental notes of the most enticing items to prioritize your time (Ooh! Beet salad! My favourite! Ooooh! Potato salad with canned corn! MMM roast chicken thighs in barbeque sauce! Halibut with lemon! and DILL!) Buffets are a child’s paradise, a picky eater's dream, no need to be forced to eat whatever laid on your plate and you could control exactly how much to eat.

Naturally, what makes or breaks a buffet is based solely on the dessert table. Some places have only a handful of items to choose from: store-bought cookies, cheap blocks of chocolate and vanilla cake slathered with pink saccharine frosting, and sad pieces of wobbly green jello under ghastly flourescent lighting. Shameful, I know.

The secret to the best dessert table is offering too many items, so many in fact, you can’t decide. For example, there must be at least five cakes, a layer cake, a fruit-based mousse cake, a flourless chocolate cake, a marble cake, even this cake are all acceptable selections, and keeping them intact is essential, none of that pre-sliced business please. A self-serve ice cream bar always wins my heart, not only because you get to mix and match flavours, but it gives you the culinary freedom to make it even unhealthier by sprinkling in chocolate chips or colored sprinkles, ladling over fudge and caramel sauce, drowning your ice cream in cookie crumbs, honeyed nut clusters, or if you must, maschino cherries.

On the other side of the table, there ought to be a spread of bite-sized sweets: homemade cookies and bars (mmm Nanaimo bars), macarons (if that trend isn’t over yet), madeleines, √©clairs and chocolate truffles are all welcome here. When I was younger, one thing I was never able to resist were the mini fruit tarts.

I loved the precariously arranged fruit over a buttery crust and the pastry cream that oozed with each greedy bite. I was careful though, I'd strip each tart naked, picking off each blueberry, raspberry, peach and kiwi slice one by one, licking off the glazed sugar, then scooping out the rich cream with my fingers, leaving me with the best part of all: the crumbly cookie crust. Sometimes eat this slowly, as I liked how delicate they were, but most times I’d swallow them whole before moving on to my next dessert. I told you I was pro.

It ain’t easy making a tart I tell you. I’m an impatient person, I rap my fingers on the table when I’m waiting for my dinner, just the other day, I nearly threw a tandrum waiting for my prescription to be filled, I curse at stupid drivers sometimes (It's not road rage, I just think there are a lot of stupid people driving stupidly). However, preparing the tart crust is a true testament to how patient I am when it comes to desserts. I don’t mind bending over the table, meticulously smoothing out the dough till it looks immaculate. Looks are everything. 

This was already my third attempt at tart-crust-making. When I pulled this tart out of the oven, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It retained its structure, supported the lemon curd (which I’ll get to in a minute), and it smelled heavenly

Years ago, I made a lemon tart quite unlike this one for my roommates. It wasn’t the prettiest looking crust, it resembled the Rocky Mountains, jagged and unpredictable, but the filling, oh! It was beautiful. Yellow and plain, it puckered your lips like a sour candy, the texture was like lemon soda. I couldn’t believe how awesome it was. All six wedges of the tart had disappeared in minutes, my guy roommate, happy and full, murmured a marriage proposal, the best compliment any home baker could receive.

I can’t promise if this lemon tart can have that same effect on your friends, but I’m certain everyone who digs into this will be pleased. This beauty is from Alice Medrich's book Sinfully Easy and Delicious Desserts and features a rich, sandy butter crust with a thick filling of lemon curd. The curd is a fine balance between sour and sweet, it's fragrant, smooth and contrasts against the crumbly bottom, the kind of thing suitable for any buffet.

 Alice Medrich's Lemon Tart
Adapted from Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2012.

I'm a huge Alice Medrich fan. I've featured a few of her recipes before, like here and here. In this recipe, I upped the amount of lemon zest because I can never get enough of it (plus, I have a secret love affair for my microplane grater). Alice suggests you can make the lemon curd as the crust bakes. If the crust is done before the curd, just set it aside until the curd is ready. She also suggests serving this with fresh berries or grating a little more zest over the top for garnish. I was too excited to bother with either, some things are perfect just the way they are. 

You need a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom to make this. Alice gives a  great tip to remove the tart ring, simply set the pan over a large can or jar and loosen the sides down and off gently. Et voil√†!
For the crust
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder

For the lemon curd
3 large eggs
grated zest of 3 medium lemons
½ cup strained fresh lemon juice (the same 3 lemons you zested)
½ cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350°F

For the crust, combine the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt in a medium bowl. Mix the flour and baking powder together in a separate bowl, add to the butter mixture and mix just till well blended. If the dough appears too soft or gooey, allow it to sit for a few minutes to firm up.

Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan to make a thin, even layer. This takes plenty of patience, but do take your time, your efforts will be rewarded. Press the dough squarely into the corners the pan to avoid extra thick edges (the crust can be made 2 or 3 days in advance at this stage, just wrap and refrigerate and bring to room temperature before baking).

Put the pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is fully golden brown all over. If the crust puffs up during baking, gently prick it a few times all over.

Meanwhile, make the lemon curd. Set a strainer over a medium bowl. Whisk the eggs in a small nonreactive saucepan to blend. Whisk in the lemon zest, juice, and sugar. Add the butter. Over medium heat, whisk and make sure you reach into the corners and scrape the sides of the pan. Allow the butter to melt and mixture thickens. When it begins to simmer around the edges, continue whisking another 10 seconds then remove from heat. Carefully pour over the strainer, gently pressing down the solids. Scrape any curd underneath the strainer and put into the bowl. Refrigerate until using. This lemon curd keeps in the fridge, covered, for up to a week.

When the crust is ready, evenly spread the lemon curd (it’s fine if it’s still hot, warm or chilled). Return the tart to the oven and bake for 5 minutes to set the lemon curd. Allow to cool.

Serve the tart at room temperature or chilled. Leftovers can be kept in the fridge for one more day.

Recipe here!

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