By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
One August, when I was 10 years old and vacationing with my family in a village in Provence, we decided to try lemon tarts from all the patisseries within a 20-minute drive. Every day, we’d pick up our sample to rigorously evaluate its merits and flaws. Was the pastry as crisp and crumbly as a cookie? Was the curd silky smooth, yet sharp enough to make you squint before the buttery sweetness hit?
This recipe meets those criteria and more, and even features a timesaving tweak. Instead of a classic tart crust, which needs a rolling pin and all your patience, I use a foolproof, smoosh-it-into-the-pan dough made with melted butter. It’s a breeze to throw together and bakes up as crunchy as a shortbread cookie, but it’s thin enough that there’s plenty of room for the lemon curd filling.
Besides being easy, the melted butter has a surprising advantage. Cook it until the foamy white milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan, and the fat turns amber and smells like hazelnuts. The resulting brown-butter crust may not be traditional, but its caramel flavor is the perfect complement to the bright, acidulous curd.
The only tricky part here is baking it just long enough. Because the curd is cooked on the stove first, it needs only a few minutes in the oven to help it settle into the crust. Gently shake the pan: When the tart is done, the middle should jiggle, but the edges stay put. The center will set as it cools.
Don’t rush the cooling time, though. The baked tart needs at least two hours to rest. If, even after that, the curd still looks a little runny, pop it into the fridge for an hour or two to help it set before you cut it.
The crust will stay at its crunchiest when served on the day you bake the tart. But it’s nearly as heavenly (if a bit softer) a day or two later. Store it in the fridge and eat it cold, or let it come to room temperature. It’s excellent both ways.
Lemon tarts don’t need any kind of accompaniment, like ice cream or whipped cream. One sublime yellow wedge is sufficient unto itself, perhaps paired with an espresso — though my inner 10-year-old still yearns for a glass of cold milk, and dreams of sun-drenched Provençal afternoons.
Recipe: Classic Lemon Tart
By Melissa Clark
This classic lemon tart has a buttery, shortbread crust and a soft, dense lemon curd filling that barely holds its shape when you cut a slice. The textures should be a combination of crunchy and velvety; the flavor, sharp and tangy, with just enough sugar to take the edge off the citrus. This version has all of that, with one tweak for ease. Instead of making a traditional dough that needs to be shaped with a rolling pin, this one has a simple press-in-the-pan cookie crust made with melted butter. For a nutty-scented brown butter crust, let the butter cook until it turns golden. This tart is at its best when served on the day it’s baked, but it’s still delightful a day or two later (though the crust will lose some of its crispness). Store it in the refrigerator and serve it cold or at room temperature.
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 2 hours, plus at least 2 hours’ cooling
For the Crust:
- 8 tablespoons/113 grams unsalted butter
- 1 1/4 cups/173 grams all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup/73 grams powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
For the Curd:
- 12 tablespoons/170 grams unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
- 1 cup/237 milliliters freshly squeezed lemon juice (5 to 7 lemons)
- 1 cup/200 grams sugar, more to taste
- 3 large eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- Large pinch fine sea or table salt
1. Make the crust: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. (If you like, you can let the butter cook until it browns and smells nutty, 2 to 4 minutes longer.)
2. Whisk together flour, powdered sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Drizzle in melted butter and, using a spatula, mix until well combined. Press this into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch tart pan, using a measuring cup if you like to flatten the tart shell and make sure it’s even. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 months (wrap in plastic if storing for more than 4 hours).
3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line tart dough with a piece of foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights, dry beans or rice. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and continue to bake until the crust is very lightly golden at the edges and baked through on the bottom, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Transfer to a rack to cool. (Tart shell can be made up to 1 day ahead and kept at room temperature.)
4. Make the curd: Put butter, lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook until butter is melted and mixture is hot, 4 to 5 minutes.
5. In a medium bowl, beat together eggs, yolks and salt. Whisk the hot mixture gradually into the eggs to temper them. Then pour everything back into the saucepan and return to medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (170 degrees; do not overcook, or it will curdle), about 5 minutes. Pour through a fine-meshed sieve into a bowl. Taste and add a bit more sugar if you like. It should taste tart but balanced.
6. Spread the curd (it’s OK if it’s still warm) into the tart shell, spreading it evenly with a small offset spatula or butter knife. Return to the oven to bake until the curd is just set along the edges but still jiggly in the center, about 7 to 15 minutes. (It will continue to firm up as it cools.) Transfer back to the wire rack to cool completely, at least 2 hours, before serving. If the curd still looks a little loose after cooling, you can chill the tart for an hour or two before serving. Note that it’s a soft curd but shouldn’t be runny.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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